As a work of literature, the autobiography of Nelson Mandela, A Long Walk to Freedom, is a curious beast, with many contradictory purposes. Of course, it is a story worth telling, and there are several episodes on which Mandela obviously intends to set the record straight. Yet it is never vainglorious or self-congratulatory. It is barely heroic, often mundane, and yet thoroughly readable.
Mandela admits to mistreating his family and expresses regret for this, almost to the point of implying that a man cannot be a good leader if he is not also a good family man. As an undergraduate, I recall a professor of African history telling me that Mandela meant the book to be a kind of manual to other African leaders, counselling them to be morally and financially incorruptible. Indeed, one of the points Mandela makes forcibly in the book is that he had no natural pretensions to power. His family, he tells us, were hereditary councillors to a tribal chief in his native territory. His role was to advise the chief, not to be president.
Mandela’s legacy is sure to be much trumpeted in the aftermath of his death. This in itself is peculiar. After all, he left no new system of law and had llittle impact in the international arena – the traditional hallmarks of a statesman. He will, no doubt, be credited with both in one way or another. Yet the crumbling of Apartheid began while he was in prison and was inevitable by the time FW de Klerk realised that the game was up.
Behind every hagiography of Mandela lies an implicit fear; that Mandela, in living, prevented the African National Congress from engaging in an orgy of redistribution and violence of the kind that ruined neighbouring Zimbabwe. After Mandela, anything seems possible in South Africa. That is not the case.
Mandela was not the only important figure in South Africa’s transition to democracy. Some might say that he was not even the most important. However, sensing that entreaties from the government were sincere and willing to defy his Party in order to open negotiations, Mandela built trust between the two sides. As a result, South Africa’s transition was a pacted rather than revolutionary one. It remains a model of reconciliation compared to those in Eastern Europe. Moreover, it did not suffer from the remnants of the previous regime lingering on, as others have. Although it brought fresh problems, these are not insurmountable ones.
How did Mandela come to occupy such an exalted position? From being a figure of hate to many people – some of whom made t-shirts entreating the authorities to ‘Hang Mandela’ – he became a figure of universal regard. The key lies in two separate periods of his career. In the 1960s, Mandela was a relatively hot-headed leader in the anti-Apartheid resistance. Having defeated a trumped-up trial for terrorism in 1961, he did, in fact, turn to sabotage. His readings of Che Guevera and Fidel Castro, however, did not lead to the abstract theorising which ultimately led communism astray.
On the contrary, Mandela’s closing speech at his 1964 trial remains one of the great dissections of an illiberal regime – a heroic defence of dignity and equality. It lacks the idealism of Martin Luther King Jnr, or the bitter righteousness of Malcolm X, but his lawyerly exposition of the contradictions inherent in the policy of ‘separate but equal’ came just as the world was starting to see these inconsistencies clearly. For this he earned the sympathy not of the whole world, but a great part of it.
After twenty-years spent on Robben Island, Mandela displayed the qualities that made him a genuinely exceptional world leader. One way of describing these would be forgiveness. Though that sounds terribly weak in the modern era, Mandela’s capacity to forgive was, as he himself liked to say, a strength. It meant that he was unencumbered by bitterness when approaching problems which demanded sensitivity and understanding.
Since the process of dismantling Apartheid was ultimately a question of trust, there could be no better go-between. Others might have made the humiliation of the old guard more complete at the risk of even greater violence, but few would now say that it could have been done better.
So Mandela combined the qualities of a lawyer, a councillor, and a Christian. Though he became President, he tells us that he disapproves of the presidential system. He adopted the role of speech-maker and interpreter of the black and white South Africa’s to each other. Some scholars loathe the argument that Mandela united the nation using the 1995 Rugby World Cup, yet it is not unusual to hear that this was indeed the case. He had many talents, but greater virtues. His achievements were outweighed by his symbolic value, yet he was conscious that this brought more power than many politicians ever hope to wield.