The Simplistic Nelson Mandela

So everyone has an opinion on the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela.

The coverage and commentary I’ve seen over the last few days has pushed something to the front of my mind which has been percolating semi-consciously for a while: the universal human tendency to reduce complex things (like people) to simplistic things (like bumper stickers). In particular, I have watched with fascination and frustration the political manifestation of this tendency, the reduction of a real, complex human being to either a Saint or a Demon.

This isn’t a partisan post, because this isn’t a partisan issue. If you, whatever your views, think that only the Other Side does this, or even just that the Other Side does it WAY WORSE than your team, you are wrong, and go sit in the corner and think about what you have done. Everybody does this, and it’s never acceptable, and it’s never helpful, and we all need to stop it.

So on to the current case. I’m not an expert on Mandela. But I know enough to know that everything I have read so far from all sources is criminally simplistic. I know to expect this to some degree, but I would hope that on the occasion of the death of the respected 95-year-old South African statesman, we could wait at least a couple of weeks here in the US before starting to make this all about us.

To those making Mandela out to be a saint: calm down. The man was the founder of a terrorist group. This fact is not in dispute. He was imprisoned for attempting to violently overthrow the government via this group, for which he was guilty. He was friends with Fidel Castro and Muammar Gaddafi, violent dictators that as a matter of policy murdered their own people. He was married to a woman for almost 40 years who was found by South Africa’s own TRC to be both “accountable” and “responsible” for “gross violations of human rights.” He was proudly Marxist throughout his life. He remained in prison for part of those 27 years because he refused what was in at least one offer the only condition he was presented: that he “unconditionally reject violence as a political weapon.”

To those making Mandela out to be a demon: calm down. The man successfully navigated the end of apartheid and saw South Africa to its first truly democratic election. He personally held Marxist views, yes, but did not follow through on his early goals of nationalizing much of South Africa’s economy. He was committed to nonviolent means of protest for many years until he became convinced by the grave injustice and violence he constantly witnessed that sometimes there may be no other way to prevent future violence. This is the same justification given by any hawk for military action. While in prison and after his release, he seems to have attempted to exert what influence he had over the ANC to end the violence. After his release and as President, he was deeply committed to racial reconciliation and forgiveness for both sides, so much so that some of the violent revolutionaries he used to lead turned on him.

Finally, to those yelling at each other over this: calm down. It’s fitting and proper to celebrate the good things Mandela accomplished. They are real, and they are significant. It’s also fitting and proper in a political and historical context to remember accurately his violent past and his controversial positions. There is nothing racist about the above paragraphs.

All of these things can be true at the same time because–and if you’ll remember, this is what prompted me to write this whole thing–people are not simplistic. People are complex. They live in real life and make real judgments with real consequences. Sometimes they change. Another of Mandela’s friends, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, had the following to say about him: “Before Nelson Mandela was arrested in 1962, he was an angry, relatively young man. He founded the ANC’s military wing. When he was released, he surprised everyone because he was talking about reconciliation and forgiveness and not about revenge.”

Let’s all think about that as we reflect on the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela. Let us keep some decorum, and let us remember that he was a man, not an ideology, neither a saint nor a demon. He was complex. He was not a bumper sticker. Let us strive to live up to that description ourselves.


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