History, it is often said, gives a man but one sentence. Washington founded a nation. Jefferson authored the Declaration of Independence. Lincoln freed the slaves. Only someone of surpassing consequence can be described so concisely. Nelson Mandela, who died Thursday at age 95, surely belongs among that group. He brought equality to a nation.
Mandela’s election to the presidency of South Africa in 1994 marked not only the first time that a black man held that nation’s highest office, but also the end of the institutionalized racism known as apartheid. Under that regime, such basic elements of life as housing, marriage, education, and health care were segregated by race, with South Africa’s minority whites getting by far the best treatment.
The black majority lost political representation and was eventually stripped of citizenship, made to live on ramshackle reservations dogged by poverty. During a 27-year stint in prison, Mr. Mandela became a symbol of opposition to apartheid — and as president, he helped to dismantle it.
When such an iconic figure sheds his mortal coil, there is often a rush to bestow upon him the secular equivalent of sainthood. In Mr. Mandela’s case, this would represent a demotion.
Both his admirers and the vast majority of the global media regarded him as something of an angelic figure for decades prior to his death. We take a more mixed view, but one that is, in some respects, more reverential toward what the man truly accomplished.
Any candid consideration of Mr. Mandela’s legacy must weigh his great virtues against an array of vices. Foremost among the latter was his acceptance of violence as a legitimate political tactic. While it’s something of a cliche to mention Mr. Mandela in the same breath as paragons of peace such as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., it is also deeply mistaken.
Mr. Mandela directed the militant wing of the African National Congress (which bombed government targets) in his youth and embraced the idea of guerilla attacks and terrorism. Indeed, it’s often overlooked that the years he spent in prison were not as a prisoner of conscience.
He was jailed for plotting the violent overthrow of the South African government — and he refused to renounce violence throughout his imprisonment, even when it could have gained him his freedom.
Mr. Mandela also had questionable taste in friends. He was a lifelong admirer of Fidel Castro and a partner of Moammar Gadhafi, two men not usually mentioned in the same breath as great champions of human rights.
Indeed, the same radicalism that propelled him to take up arms in his youth also led him to romanticize communist and socialist ideas of the kind that have wreaked untold havoc on the African continent over the past century.
Mandela the activist and Mandela the president, however, were two very different men. Given the reins of power, he conducted himself with the restraint and grace of a statesman.
Despite a lingering (and understandable) resentment among South Africa’s black population, he did not undertake a punitive campaign against the country’s whites in the aftermath of apartheid.
Rather, he encouraged the development of a “rainbow nation” of racial harmony. Nor did he succumb to the leftist desire to address South Africa’s economic travails through nationalizing industry, deciding, instead, to pursue liberalization.
Given profound responsibility at an important historical moment, he proved himself equal to the challenge.
He was a flawed man who transcended his shortcomings to become a great one. In our estimation, that only underscores his heroism. May he rest in peace.