Mandela's gut-check for the political right

Saint or sinner, statesman or terrorist? For some, especially Reagan-era conservatives, coming to terms with Nelson Mandela has been a long, strange trip.

'Some revolutionaries and terrorists change, some don't'

Conservative politicians in the 1970s and '80s had their own views of Nelson Mandela. South Africa's blacks had another. (Reuters)

With all the self-righteousness it can muster, which can be considerable, the political left has been reminding the world this past week of all the mean things conservatives used to say about Nelson Mandela.

Some of it is pretty rich, given that a lot of conservatives have joined the worldwide chorus of Kumbaya that's filled the airwaves since Mandela's death last Thursday.

My personal favorite was the far-right, former U.S. senator Rick Santorum on television last week comparing Mandela's epic struggle with apartheid to Republicans' attempts to kill Obamacare.

He said that with a straight face.

Other, more serious, conservatives have clearly performed a mental separation of Mandela himself from the tactics he and his political movement employed.

Conrad Black, for example, praised Mandela on the CBC earlier this week as "one of the great opponents of racism.

"And I think … he was a tremendous moral leader. And we don't have so many of them in secular life."

Choking with outrage, Black's detractors quickly tweeted an excerpt from In Good Faith: Canadian Churches Against Apartheid, a 1997 memoir by activist Renate Pratt.

In it, she described efforts in the 1970s to persuade the Black-controlled Massey Ferguson to stop doing business with the apartheid regime.

Activists contended South African police were using machinery bought from the Canadian firm to forcibly and violently clear black squatters.

At the time, Black wrote to Pratt, saying that while apartheid might be "distasteful," he was opposed to replacing "the oppressions of the current regime with the barbarism that would eagerly replace them."

He went on to predict that white South Africans, whom he described as singularly responsible for creating such a remarkable country, would be massacred and expelled.

One man's 'terrorist'

In those days, Black wasn't the only conservative titan who thought that way.

In 1981, Ronald Reagan called the apartheid regime "essential to the free world." He and Britain's Margaret Thatcher led conservatives worldwide (with the exception of Canada's Progressive Conservatives) in opposing sanctions against white-run South Africa.

U.S. President Barack Obama stands alongside South Africa's last apartheid-era president F.W. de Klerk, the man who shares a Nobel Peace Prize with Nelson Mandela at the memorial service in Johannesburg on Tuesday. (Kevin Lamarque / Reuters)

Reagan officially designated Mandela's African National Congress, and Mandela himself, as "terrorists."

As recently as 2008, because of that designation, Mandela required a special waiver to visit the U.S.

As a Republican legislator in the mid-1980s, former vice-president Dick Cheney voted against a measure that demanded Mandela's release from prison.

Cheney has since said he does not regret the vote, adding that Mandela, while "a great man," belonged to a terrorist organization.

Well, Cheney and Reagan and other trenchant conservatives were right, at least by their definition of the rather elastic and ultimately meaningless word terrorist.

Mandela, faced with murderous oppression in 1961, helped form MK, the armed wing of the African National Congress. MK embraced armed struggle, which gets you onto the terrorist lists of countries that don't like your politics.

And America, in the 1970s and '80s, considered the ANC both terrorists and Communists — not least because the group was drawing moral and financial support from countries like the Soviet Union, Libya and Cuba.

At the same time, of course, Reagan was praising the violent anti-Sandinista contras in Nicaragua as "the moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers."

Moral parsing

If that sounds baldly hypocritical, it is because it is. But such moral parsing is common to most nations, and to both the political right and left. Terrorism, ultimately, is violence you disapprove of.

And, yes, yesterday's terrorists tend to show up as tomorrow's statesmen.

Although many of his supporters would blanch at the comparison, Mandela objectively had much in common with Menachem Begin, one of Israel's founding figures.

Both men embraced armed struggle; both spent time in prison for their activism; both initiated bombings against regimes they regarded as oppressors (in Begin's case, the British-run government of Palestine); and both later emerged as leaders of their nations, Mandela governing from the political left, Begin from the right.

But Mandela wasn't free long enough to carry out much violence himself. He was imprisoned just one year into the MK's bombing campaign, which initially targeted infrastructure.

Somewhat ironically, Israel under Begin was a strategic ally of the South African regime that jailed Mandela; morality, in diplomacy, is a rather elastic concept, too.

The daily muckworm

After Mandela went to prison in 1962, MK expanded its bombing campaigns. Eventually its attacks killed people, including civilians.

And from behind bars, Mandela staunchly refused to renounce armed struggle.

In a National Review article this week, Conrad Black refers to Mandela as having founded "the sabotage and murder arm of the (ANC) movement."

I emailed Black to ask how that squares with his professed admiration for Mandela on the CBC.

"I have always admired his racial tolerance and have great admiration for persevering prisoners, having been sent unjustly to prison myself," Black replied.

Referring to Cheney's vote against the congressional resolution urging Mandela's release, he added: "I always supported his release from prison and will not tolerate in silence any attempt to assimilate me to Cheney on this point." 

Black, like most conservatives now praising Mandela, says it was the anti-apartheid leader's embrace of non-violence upon his release from prison, and his active discouragement of revenge, that truly elevated him to greatness.

Tom Flanagan, the Canadian academic and conservative thinker, responded to my inquiry this way: "People's views do sometimes change, and I have no doubt that Mandela became a genuine advocate of constitutional democracy. 

"That kind of evolution deserves celebration. But that doesn't mean conservatives were wrong to be cautious 40 years ago. Some revolutionaries and terrorists change, some don't."

Perhaps the most potent assessment of how Mandela the militant squares with Mandela the secular saint comes not from those who for years judged him, but from the man himself, in one of his last books, Conversations with Myself. The Los Angeles Times quoted it at length recently.

In it, Mandela said that he bears the scars of a long struggle, which "bring out into the full glare of public scrutiny the embarrassing contradictions in which individuals live out their lives.

"We are told that a saint is a sinner who keeps on trying to be clean. One may be a villain for three-quarters of his life and be canonized because he lived a holy life for the remaining quarter of that life.

"In real life we deal not with gods, but with ordinary humans like ourselves: men and women who are full of contradictions, who are stable and fickle, strong and weak, famous and infamous, people in whose bloodstream the muckworm battles daily with potent pesticides."


Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?