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Mandela Worship

Some of you have questioned why I
haven’t bothered to write anything about Nelson Mandela since his recent death.

Part of the answer is that the
media has covered the subject so comprehensively, and I might add so
devotionally, that there seemed to be nothing much worthwhile to add.  We now know the Mandela biography from
boyhood to freedom fighter, from prisoner to president.  It is a moving tale, and Mandela is
undoubtedly an impressive figure, but I do wonder whether his secular beatification
is appropriate, least of all when it’s pronounced by media commentators eager
for headlines and sound-bites. 

Mandela the man became a potent
symbol of the fight for racial equality, as did Martin Luther King in the United States
three decades ago, but there are many, many others who did as much for the
cause, and some even more by making the ultimate sacrifice.   

Granted we need such symbols as
Mandela and King, but let’s not get carried away with the religious
sanctification.  The BBC is under fire
for going overboard, if you’ll pardon the mixed metaphor, and rightly so.  I don’t remember even Churchill’s death receiving
the kind of coverage that has just been awarded to Mandela.  And even if the statistics were to prove me
wrong on that point, I’d warrant that no one since Churchill has been given
such post mortem attention.      

Interestingly, the careers of both
men run on parallel tracks.  Each was deservedly
revered for prevailing in struggles against what from the start seemed insuperable
odds.  Churchill defied Hitler and
Fascism at a time when Britain
lacked the means, and some might say the will, to wage a successful war.  Mandela likewise was given little chance of
surviving, let alone beating, what most observers regarded as the most obdurately
backward regime on the planet.  Their
achievements should not be gainsaid. 

But, equally, neither man was a
saint.  Moreover, having acquired
everlasting fame for their singular triumphs of determination, each would only
disappoint in the aftermath.  Churchill,
a dyed-in-the-wool imperialist and militarist of almost Blimpish dimensions,
was an unreliable and largely frustrated politician in peacetime, including – and
perhaps especially – the brief period of his final term in office.  Mandela, if one looks beyond his role as the
figurehead of victory, likewise became an ineffective chief executive, tolerating
the incompetence and corruption of colleagues, and doing little to further the
economic or social advancement of his people. 
Both men presided over dysfunctional families.  And, by the way, at a fundamental level they
would have hated each other.

In both men, one virtue outweighs
many faults.  But let’s not overlook those
faults in the mindless pursuit of uncritical hero-worship.  And let’s not put either of them on pedestals
too small to accommodate the many others who contributed to their cause.

There ought to be room, for
example, for William Frederick DeKlerk, the former president of the South
African Republic, who first persuaded his Nationalist Party zealots to release
Mandela from prison and then painstakingly, and almost certainly painfully,
negotiated a peaceful handing over of power from the white minority to the
black majority.  DeKlerk can’t be
politically beatified because of his earlier associations with Apartheid, but
these surely make his conversion, and its result, all the more laudable.   He did of course share with Mandela the Nobel
Peace Prize.

My admiration for Mandela and
Churchill (and DeKlerk) remains undiminished, but it’s not blind to their
peccadilloes or their defects.

The funeral has brought us all
back to earth, as it were. 

President Obama is bound to be in
trouble back home with the political right because he shook the hand of Raul
Castro, the President of Cuba.  He’s
already in trouble with his wife, apparently, for ‘flirting’ with Denmark’s Prime
Minister Helle Thorning Schmidt by posing, along with British Prime Minister
David Cameron, for a ‘selfie’ on her cell phone.  More significantly, President Jacob Zuma, an
increasingly unpopular figure, was booed by the crowd.   

So it’s back to politics as
usual, both national and familial. 
Madiba is probably chuckling in his coffin.


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