Nelson Mandela: Loved Universally In Death — But Not In Life

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LONDON - JUNE 27: Nelson Mandela appears onstage during the 46664 Concert In Celebration Of Nelson Mandela's Life held at Hyde Park on June 27, 2008 in London, England. (Photo by Gareth Davies/Getty Images)
National Journal
Elahe Izadi
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Elahe Izadi
Dec. 6, 2013, 1:59 a.m.

When Nel­son Man­dela died Thursday in South Africa, the re­mem­brances poured in from across the polit­ic­al spec­trum here in the United States, eu­lo­giz­ing him for pos­sess­ing a saintly char­ac­ter and serving as an in­spir­a­tion for people world­wide.

But the thing is, Man­dela hadn’t been uni­ver­sally revered throughout his life. And in fact, some of those re­mem­brances came from the same groups and in­di­vidu­als who pre­vi­ously had harsh words for the man who had spent 27 years as a polit­ic­al pris­on­er and went on to lead post-apartheid South Africa.

Man­dela had been on the U.S. ter­ror­ist watch-list un­til 2008. In 2003, he de­nounced the U.S.-led Ir­aq war and said the U.S. had com­mit­ted “un­speak­able at­ro­cit­ies in the world.” He vis­ited Fi­del Castro in Cuba shortly after he was re­leased from pris­on, and em­braced then-Palestine Lib­er­a­tion Or­gan­iz­a­tion Chair­man Yass­er Ara­fat and Liby­an dic­tat­or Muam­mar el-Qad­dafi.

All of which meant he was not con­sidered above re­proach by all. In 2003, the Anti-De­fam­a­tion League, for in­stance, called Man­dela’s re­marks against the Ir­aq war and the U.S. “of­fens­ive, pre­ju­di­cial, and simply wrong.” The Amer­ic­an Jew­ish Com­mit­tee can­celed an event hon­or­ing Man­dela in 2000 after com­ments he made about an Ir­a­ni­an tri­al of 13 Jews.

After his death, ADL put out a state­ment, call­ing Man­dela a “true hero of free­dom who brought his­tor­ic change, and did so peace­fully.” AJC’s state­ment said, “We are in­delibly in­spired by his ex­ample and can say of him, as we can say of few oth­ers, that he truly helped re­pair the world.”

ADL did ac­know­ledge its past pos­ture to­ward Man­dela in the state­ment, say­ing that the or­gan­iz­a­tion had dis­agreed with him “from time to time. Those dif­fer­ences, however, did not di­min­ish our re­spect and es­teem for this up­stand­ing mor­al lead­er. Man­dela will be greatly missed, but his leg­acy lives on.”

Man­dela had been sub­jec­ted to scorn in the 1980s and 1990s. Pres­id­ent Re­agan had des­ig­nated the Afric­an Na­tion­al Con­gress as a ter­ror­ist or­gan­iz­a­tion — Man­dela had foun­ded the armed wing of the group. Re­agan then called pro­posed sanc­tions against South Africa “im­mor­al and ut­terly re­pug­nant.” He ve­toed the Com­pre­hens­ive Anti-Apartheid Act, but Con­gress over­rode his veto in 1986 — al­though without the votes of the likes of then-Rep. Dick Cheney. Dur­ing the Cold War, the con­cern among for­eign policy hawks was that the So­viet-backed ANC move­ment would lead to a com­mun­ist coun­try.

Man­dela’s planned vis­it to Miami in the early 1990s after he so fully em­braced Castro caused an out­cry, par­tic­u­larly by Cuban-Amer­ic­an city of­fi­cials who re­voked a pro­clam­a­tion in his hon­or. In later years, Castro and Man­dela main­tained a friend­ship.

But Man­dela’s pos­ture to­ward Cuba didn’t crop up in any state­ments from Amer­ic­an law­makers who are par­tic­u­larly vo­cal on mat­ters re­lated to Cuba. For in­stance, Sen. Marco Ru­bio, R-Fla., said Man­dela’s “ex­ample will live on for gen­er­a­tions to come. Men and wo­men striv­ing for justice and fair­ness around the world have drawn in­spir­a­tion from Nel­son Man­dela, and he showed South Afric­ans and the en­tire world what the power of for­give­ness truly means and can ac­com­plish.”

In­deed, the out­pour­ings came from nearly every level of of­fi­cials, from city may­ors to House speak­ers.

The most en­dur­ing im­age of Man­dela is of a man who helped heal the very pain­ful wounds of his na­tion, choos­ing re­con­cili­ation rather than re­tri­bu­tion. And that is what has giv­en rise to such praise­worthy re­mem­brances from all corners, even if he had geo­pol­it­ic­al ties and views that were at odds with many of those same corners.

It’s a re­flec­tion of how we choose to think of those who have left us, by not dwell­ing on how sharply op­posed we may have been. Es­pe­cially when the one who has left us seems to be lar­ger-than-life.

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