Mandela, the Man and the Myth

As we celebrate the life and times of the late Nelson Mandela in this website’s special tribute edition, it is perhaps appropriate to balance out the high honor and respect I hold for Mandela and his elevated place in world history (and in my life personally) with a few thoughts on Mandela the man vs. Mandela the myth.

As Nelson Mandela often told the story in his lifetime: When he was preparing to come out of prison in 1990 after 27 long years, his biggest worry was that the public would see him as what he called a “demigod” — someone who was saintly, morally perfect and closer to God than the rest of us. He wanted the people of South Africa and the world to see him not that way, but rather as an ordinary man with faults and problems of his own who was struggling like everyone else.

Alas, Mandela was not to have his wish because a demigod is essentially what he became after he left prison, went on to become the first Black president of a democratic and free South Africa, retired from office after just one term and traveled the world through the remainder of his years.

After he passed away in South Africa at age 95, memorial tributes were held in cities around the world (see the PHOTOS page on this website for one of them). On 11 December 2013, a week or so after Mandela’s passing, an official memorial service was held for him in Tokyo at the United Nations University, attended by prominent people in government and the arts, among others.

Ms. Mohau Pheko, the South African ambassador to Japan, was on hand at the event and delivered a moving eulogy to Mandela, recalling his honored place in South African and world history. To her credit, Pheko, in part of her eulogy, also dared to separate Mandela the man from Mandela the myth, recalling some of the personal flaws that Mandela had.

“In his own life, he was a failure as a father — in part, but not entirely, because of his three decades of incarceration,” Pheko told the audience. “His daughter Makaziwe once said to him, describing a rebuffed hug: ‘You are a father to all our people, but you have never been a father to me’”.

“Like so many great leaders, he found refuge from the difficulties of familial intimacy in politics and struggle — in the family of humanity,” Pheko continued. “This led to a personality that combined ‘extreme heartiness with impenetrable reserve’”.

(These passages in Madame Pheko’s eulogy, unfortunately, are not original; they were lifted word-for-word without credit from an earlier obituary that appeared in a South African newspaper, which you can read here.)

The point is well made. Mandela was a man — an honorable man worthy of our highest respect — and not a demigod, as he himself well knew.

One of the biggest open secrets in South Africa for the past few decades has been the existence of at least a couple of “love children” that Mandela had sired back in the 1940s/1950s, at a time when he was still married to his first wife, Evelyn Mase. Those children, as adults, had all but been rebuffed by Nelson Mandela and the Mandela family over the years. Now, however, it appears those children are coming forward and seeking a place at the Mandela family table when it comes to being recognized for their blood ties to the beloved patriarch. (This article in the South African news media covers some of that controversy.)

And at the professional level, there is still some lingering criticism of Mandela, when he was president from 1994 to 1999, for not having put more of the state’s resources into recognizing and fighting the HIV/AIDS crisis that was engulfing South African society. After his retirement, Mandela did indeed do so, using his former prison number of 466/64 to raise both international awareness and treatment of HIV/AIDS in South Africa.

But many of those working on the frontlines of the South African AIDS crisis insist Mandela could have saved many more lives if he had used the power of his office to deal with the crisis head-on, instead of waiting until after his retirement.

Mandela has always acknowledged and accepted that criticism, but his defense basically was that he had his hands full trying to rebuild and hold together a nation after a half-century of apartheid; he couldn’t do everything all at once.

I think that both sides of that issue — the criticism and Mandela’s defense — have some merit. And for me personally, when there is a question about an issue like this, I tend to give Mandela the benefit of the doubt. Not because he was a demigod of any kind, but because he was a man who knew his own human faults and weaknesses, and was willing to admit them to the world rather than deny them.

In closing, to re-quote one more passage that was lifted from another news source by the South African ambassador to Japan and used during her official eulogy for Mandela last December, on the point of Mandela being a “demigod” of sorts: “The writing and talking of his sublime greatness, and his assured place in that distant galaxy inhabited by those peerless men elevated to the level of gods [will be endless]”.

Indeed it will, as it should be. Nelson Mandela himself, though, always warned us away from such elevation of his myth on the grounds that he was an ordinary man with human faults like everyone else. Well, if the measure of a man’s true greatness is to be found in such a humble, honest self-image, then all I can say is: May we all aspire to be like him.

blog comments powered by Disqus