Nelson Mandela, who died December 5, has come to symbolize the triumph of hope over despair, of love over hatred, and of goodness over evil. I have recently written what an inspiration he has been to me personally as a rabbi who led a congregation in South Africa in the immediate post-apartheid period.
I wrote that he was a model for how we can and should live our lives. And all of that is true. He is the closest that we will get to absolute integrity and selflessness. But there is another side to Nelson Mandela — and many of his closest comrades — that is troubling to many Jews, including myself. We need to see both sides of Mandela to fully understand the man and his unique position in contemporary history.
Mandela is a complex figure, far more complex than is generally understood by non-South Africans. Let me cite one minor episode, which sheds a bit of light on this contradiction. When Mandela gave up his position as president of the African National Congress to Thabo Mbeki — the first step to retiring from politics two years hence in 1999 — he almost immediately gave a fiery, five hour speech on December 16, 1997, in Mafikeng that was perceived by many as being uncharacteristically radical, overtly hostile in tone and menacing in imagery. Many Jews in particular, fearful because of understandable historical reasons, found his rhetoric completely inexplicable, even frightening.
American journalist Richard Stengel writes that when they heard excerpts from the speech, many white South Africans felt betrayed. In the speech Mandela attacked whites for clinging to apartheid privileges, criticized the “white dominated” media, and described a white “counter revolutionary network” whose goal was to undermine South African democracy.
“Could this be our beloved ‘Madiba,’ our smiling symbol of racial harmony in the rainbow nation?” Stengel imagined many white South Africans thinking. How could such a loving, forgiving man say such things?
However, such an understanding of Mandela is superficial and outright false. Mandela, according to Stengel, has always had two faces vis-a-vis the white population: the “kindly and now-familiar father figure in beautiful print shirts who kisses children and talks about letting bygones be bygones” and the “stone-faced ex political prisoner who harangues them about conspiracies and residual racism.” Mandela’s speech at Mafikeng should not have been a surprise, as he has always had to maintain the dichotomous aspects of his character and views.
Mandela did a wonderful job of achieving a popularity among whites that would make any politician anywhere in the world envious. Because of the unique circumstances of the country during his presidency, minority groups including Jews viewed him with admiration and veneration.
But we forget that just a decade earlier he was still seen by many as a terrorist and a threat to social order. But that image is gone, buried under so much newer images that we have needed to emphasis. And so the old stereotypes — mainly false but not entirely so — have been forgotten or at least pretty solidly repressed.