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.”
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.