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

As South Africans mourn the passing of Nelson Mandela, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find any honest and balanced assessments of Mandela’s legacy. Indeed, particularly on the broadcast media, including Fox News, it seems to be all accolades with nary a word of criticism.

Instead, you have many sites by liberals condemning conservatives for their view of the African National Congress back in the 1980s, during the Reagan years. At the New Republic, Isaac Chotiner argues, for example, that conservatives viewed their struggle through the prism of the Cold War, and hence thought nothing of backing apartheid because that government was our ally against the Soviet Union.  Liberals like Chotiner argue that the ANC had to take allies where they found them. Yet their struggle was moral and should have been supported then by the United States.

The Cold War, he argues, “prevented many of the people fighting it from viewing Mandela in anything but Cold War terms.” How, he asks, could anyone even think of the apartheid regime as part of the Free World? The Cold War, he writes, “didn't require anyone to wear these blinders.”

Strangely, but predictably, Chotiner does not ask why Nelson Mandela and the Communist leadership of the African National Congress -- which was controlled completely by the South African Communist Party -- did not see any contradiction between their own calls for sanctions against the regime (as well as requests for international solidarity) and their support of the most brutal and repressive Communist regimes and leftist tyrannies, including Gadaffi’s Libya and Fidel Castro’s Cuba.

The issue was raised in the New York Times by former executive editor Bill Keller, in a column titled provocatively: “Nelson Mandela, Communist.” Acknowledging that Mandela was probably both a Party member as well as on its ruling Central Committee, Keller, unaware that the SACP had acknowledged his membership proudly a few days earlier on its own web page, asked a simple question: “Does it matter?”

Keller answers his rhetorical question the following way: People say one thing, but party platforms and ideology are often ignored. This, he says, is what the pragmatic Mandela did. Conservatives who harp on it are engaging in “gleeful red-baiting.” The truth, he writes, is that Mandela “was at various times a black nationalist and a nonracialist, an opponent of armed struggle and an advocate of violence, a hothead and the calmest man in the room, a consumer of Marxist tracts and an admirer of Western democracy, a close partner of Communists and, in his presidency, a close partner of South Africa’s powerful capitalists.”

In other words, he was a man of contradictions. His alliance with and membership in the SACP was simply a “marriage of convenience,” in a movement with few friends. He was able to receive money and arms from his Soviet and Chinese comrades for their “feckless armed struggle.” Despite ideology, when push came to shove, the pragmatists and the realists won out.  Mandela emerged from prison a changed man, who brought reconciliation to his native land that could have erupted in civil war, and both avoided bloodshed and gave his backing to South African capitalists who could have been his enemy.

His Party membership can be explained simply by the fact that the Marxist-Leninist group was the only political group that allowed whites, blacks, Indians and mixed-race people as members.