When I was a university student in the early 1980s, it was common for liberals to demand economic sanctions against South Africa for its apartheid (apartness, segregation) regime and freedom for Nelson Mandela. It was just as common for conservatives to view apartheid as someone else’s problem at the other side of the world, and to dismiss Mandela as a terrorist justly condemned and safely confined.
Then came 1990. The gentle soul who emerged from the Robben Island prison—and who then dealt with his former captors and his racial enemies not cruelly, not fairly, but graciously—merited a complete reconsideration of Mandela’s identity. The man who went in was not the man who came out.
Six years later, as president, he established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to expose—for history and for the satisfaction of victims—the injustices and atrocities committed by the regime, but also by those who violently opposed it, including his African National Congress. He granted amnesty for many of those who testified, and it was one of his many gestures and measures to unite a divided, scarred, and fearful nation.
So it has been surprising to see the old judgments reemerging in some fringe-evangelical and fringe-conservative publications, and in Facebook postings. According to these accounts, Mandela was a terrorist, a communist, and a radical champion of abortion rights. These sources claim to be defending truth but, unlike the man whose true character they claim to be exposing, they show no grace or interest in reconciliation.
It is true that after the 1960 Sharpeville massacre of unarmed black citizens by the police, Mandela turned to reforming the government by violent sabotage (though reports I have read indicate he avoided civilian, human targets). Keep in mind that the apartheid regime was itself a terrorist state toward its black population. Even so, Mandela’s violence was before his 27 years in prison from which he emerged to save his nation peacefully. Some compared the South African apartheid regime to a man holding a wolf by the ears. Justice demands you let it go. Self-preservation demands you hold on tight. Mandela worked from the day of his release to tame the wolves on both sides.
Mandela’s great accomplishment for which we revere him is, first, his triumph over himself in overcoming bitterness and the desire for revenge (the faith he professed indicates this was the triumph of Christ), and second, his national leadership in reconciling a bitterly divided nation that could have become one of the many tyrannies and bloodbaths of Africa. On a continent with such a horrific political track record of post-colonial national liberators who established presidencies for life in one-party states, Mandela served one term, united and calmed his country, and then, with Washingtonian moral greatness, stepped down.
There is so little to commend most political leaders that when public service shines at its best with this brightness, the wise response is to celebrate it.