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The Search for Nuance about Nelson Mandela — as the World Celebrates His Legacy

If you don’t trust Williams’ account, read the frank article in TNR by reporter Eve Fairbanks, who lives in and reports from South Africa. While the media at Tuesday's memorial report on how everyone in South Africa loves Mandela and what he did for them, Fairbanks reports the truth:

People are deeply, deeply disillusioned with the leaders who’ve followed Mandela, both official African National Congress politicians and emotional leaders like Mandela’s offspring. Mandela’s relatives seem to have bucked his example entirely; some have banked millions in mining, an industry against which the apartheid-era ANC railed against as the heart of South Africa’s satanic injustice, while others have cashed in with a reality TV show. The allegations against the politicians in actual office are more troubling. The country’s second democratically-elected president, Thabo Mbeki, was bitterly criticized for denying South Africa’s AIDS epidemic. Mbeki’s successor, President Jacob Zuma, was prosecuted for both rape and racketeering; he was acquitted of the former, and the latter charges were dropped on technicalities, but recently a huge scandal around taxpayer-funded upgrades to his massive home dominated the papers until Mandela’s—for Zuma, very propitiously timed—death. Daily, the whole black political class is accused in the media of corruption in the awarding of government contracts and greed in treating itself to swanky vacations and flashy vehicles. “They were heroes,” one of the students standing beside me on the police line mused grimly, “but then they started buying cars.” As they buy cars, economic growth has slowed, basic education has fallen into disrepair, and inequality has deepened. This fall, The Economist concluded in a cover package pessimistically titled “Cry, the Beloved Country” that South Africa “is on the slide both economically and politically” and that the ANC’s “incompetence and outright corruption are the main causes.”

Fairbanks dares, in a liberal publication, to point out what you will not hear on TV and radio by the mainstream press, and asks this tough question: “Great leadership involves building a political culture that mirrors your virtues. Can a leader truly be considered great if those who come right on his heels are terrible?” Praising Mandela for honesty himself in the post-apartheid government, she nevertheless concludes that “Mandela didn’t do enough to actively establish a culture of honesty, selflessness, and good conduct in the government he founded.” She adds that  Mandela also “vigorously defended an ANC leader named Allan Boesak who was accused of embezzlement, even directing his Minister of Justice to make a speech supporting Boesak. (Boesak was soon convicted and sentenced to six years in prison.)”

You wouldn’t know much of that by our media reports, which celebrate Mandela as if he was a saint, and which really amount to self-glorification and their desire to identify with the old opponents of apartheid. So Kudos to Eve Fairbanks for her courage in daring to spoil the party by telling some of the uncomfortable truths the regular media does not let anyone know about.

Yes, Nelson Mandela deserves credit for helping South Africa avoid a civil war, for not creating an all-black racist government, and for creation of a commission that allowed those who had engaged in unconscionable acts to atone for their crimes and that created the structure that allowed the society to move on. One must also remember that the collapse of the Soviet Union -- its main benefactor -- did a lot to prevent the country from becoming an African version of the old Stalinist state. With the Soviets not around to back them into becoming another “people’s democracy,” there really was no option around but to allow capitalism to continue.

Yet if one takes the case of its most likely next president -- Cyril Ramaphosa -- one can see the corruption that allowed the former left-wing socialist union leader to become one of the wealthiest businessmen in the country. As in Russia after the fall, where the former Communists grabbed the wealth of the nation for themselves, leading ANC and Communist leaders did the same in South Africa.

In 2012, the ANC directed police to shoot down striking mine workers in cold blood -- something that the ANC in the years of the “liberation struggle” would have never tolerated from the apartheid regime. Thirty-four miners were shot in the back and killed, and 78 others were seriously injured. Ramaphosa, the former head of the mineworkers union, called the strikers guilty of “dastardly criminal conduct.”  He is widely regarded as the man who was responsible for the police response to the strike. When ANC leaders now own the mines, they have a different set of standards.

In honoring Nelson Mandela, let us not forget his easily discovered “dark side.” To ignore it is to fail to understand why South Africa is in such trouble today.

(Thumbnail on PJM homepage created using multiple Shutterstock.com images.)