Mandela is no saint – and that’s a great thing

Nelson Mandela was no saint. The flaws in his personal life are well-known. He was a founder of the ANC’s armed wing Umkhonto we Sizwe – Spear of the Nation – which launched attacks on the racist South African government. Once in power himself, he should have done more to halt the spread of HIV and to move his ANC away from the old liberation allies.

This is not how we want our heroes. We want them clean, pristine, free from controversy, doubt and flaws. We want Saint Mother Theresa. And already we seem to want Saint Nelson Mandela. The coverage of his death will strip away some of the complexities of his life.

Less than 24 hours after his death, maybe it is too early to include the warts. Today is a day to celebrate a great man not trash his memory, after all.

But in remembering his frailties is not to engage in some sort of point scoring by a right-wing newspaper. It is not an attempt to undermine his reputation – for those failings are absolutely central to Mandela’s greatness.

They were responsible for a humility that meant there was no place for revenge – only forgiveness – in his political programme. Without them, would he have been so comfortable talking about the death of his son to Aids? They stripped him of airs and graces, and ensured an extraordinary common touch.

On a continent where so many rebel leaders have overthrown oppressive regimes, only to descend into the lavish living and human rights abuses they fought against, this is the real lesson for Africa.

Mandela had no divine right to rule.

He fought an ugly campaign that used violence. His personal life was a mess. He could be bad tempered, stubborn and autocratic. And he knew it, pushing back repeatedly against any attempt to turn himself into a living, secular saint.

Would an icon have stepped aside after a single term in government?

Mandela was no saint. He was filled with all-too human frailties. We should not ignore that by deifying his memory or beatifying him in death. We should not let the the myth take over. In so doing so we would lose the very things that made him great.


4 thoughts on “Mandela is no saint – and that’s a great thing

  1. Interesting. It may be too soon to point out his “warts,” but no better time to take a close look at a man’s legacy in an honest way. I doubt a saint would have been able to achieve what he did and the fact that he had human frailties makes his accomplishments a bit more accessible. There is a kind of possibility that exists when you can relate to another person as someone who actually existed, warts and all. Maybe that’s why people are so quick to idolize him now?

  2. Hi Rob – Alex here. Nice article/blog/whatever you kids are calling it! I’ve often wondered why Mandela wasn’t studied more to understand domestic terrorists/freedom fighters. He was a terrorist, but most would agree that his ends probably justified his means. The Iraqi insurgents would probably argue the same. I’m not quite sure where I stand, but I’ve always struggled a bit with the whole we’re right/they’re wrong angle in Iraq and Afghanistan. Must be getting old – don’t remember being indecisive/open minded in my youth. Think I may have used up my “/” allocation in this comment.

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