Nelson Mandela will stay in history on two accounts. He will be remembered for acceding to his country’s presidency after more than thirty years in jail, including 27 years uninterrupted imprisonment in Robben Island, Pollsmoor, and other places. It happens quite often, of course, that rebels, dissidents, or political prisoners turn into heads of state. One of the most captivating episodes of the Bible is the sudden promotion of Joseph, the Hebrew lad, from slavery and the dungeon to the vice-royalty of Egypt.
In the 20th century, such evil figures as Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler, Ahmed Ben Bella, and Ruhollah Khomeini became dictators after a few years in exile or jail. There was also the more palatable ascent of Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya from British jail to a quasi-monarchic position, or the truly admirable cases of Lech Walesa of Poland and Vaclav Havel of Czechoslovakia, who started as dissidents and ended as democratic presidents. However, no leader to be, neither in the Holy Writ nor in recorded history, stayed nearly so long in jail — or confinement — as Mandela.
Mandela will also be remembered for behaving, once in power and in spite of his prior ordeal, with utmost moderation and as a champion of national reconciliation. This had to do, in many ways, with his character and mindset. A Xhosa tribal prince, and a Fort Hare finely educated lawyer, he never subscribed in his early years to utopian or totalitarian revolutionary views — be it black or third-world nationalism or Marxism — but merely demanded the implementation of human and civic rights, as defined by the successive Anglo-Saxon, Western and international bills and declarations. When, as the leader of ANC, the black South African party, he eventually resorted to armed rebellion and terrorism in the late 1950s and early 1960s, he rationalized it as a legitimate option against an illegitimate apartheid regime, and looked for political and logistic support everywhere, including in Haile Selassie’s staunchly pro-Western Ethiopia.
Indeed, he finally made an alliance with Communism: he secretly joined the South African Communist party; he knew that his closest underground advisor, Joe Slovo, a white South African, was a Soviet agent; he organized the ANC’s military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (UwS), along Maoist and Castrist lines; and ANC itself became, once he was jailed and under Slovo’s supervision, a Communist front. But Mandela was not entirely happy with that and, while jailed at Robben Island, markedly disagreed on many issues with other Marxist-minded inmates like Govan Mbeki and Harry Gwala. He was clearly relieved to hear about the dislocation and fall of the Soviet Union and Communism in the late 1980s, precisely at the moment he entered final discussions with the white government for a transition to a multiracial regime.