I had barely recovered from the programmes commemorating the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Kennedy. Did the events in Dealey Plaza on November 22, 1963 deny us a great man in the making or was Kennedy, as I had hitherto naively thought, merely a middling president? Just as I was trying to get my head around this conundrum, Nelson Mandela died and the world went mad.
That the greatest statesman of the 20th century has just died seems to be the view of most of the media. Really? What about Deng Xiaoping who around 1980 began the reforms which would turn China into an economic giant and 30 years later bring a British Prime Minister to Shanghai to kowtow for trade favours? What about Konrad Adenauer and Ludwig Erhard who inherited a smoking ruin of a country and turned West Germany into the second most powerful economy in the world by 1965?
Mandela’s moral authority amongst black South Africans was unparalleled. His great achievement was to bring about reconciliation and national unity in South Africa and in this he was more successful than many thought possible. But don’t forget that this was the sensible thing to do and the avoidance of vendetta was something which had been practised successfully in most of Eastern Europe after the fall of the Iron Curtain.
As chief executive of South Africa, Mandela was rather less successful. According to David Blair in an article for the Daily Telegraph, Mandela’s cabinets were stuffed with time servers. His first foreign minister, Alfred Nzo, had great difficulty in the simplest tasks and soon lapsed into almost total inactivity. Mandela appointed his wife, Winnie, to a junior ministerial post in 1994. Soon, she was accused of a remarkable array of offences and he was forced to sack her after only one year. “There was a notable lack of decisiveness about Mandela’s administration,” wrote Martin Meredith in his otherwise friendly biography. “[There was] a lack of urgency in determining priorities and tackling them, a tendency to let government business drift.”
Some of Mandela’s judgements could be quite quirky. He praised Muammar Gaddafi for his “commitment to the fight for peace and human rights in the world.” Of Fidel Castro’s Cuba, he said, “There’s one thing where that country stands out head and shoulders above the rest. That is in its love for human rights and liberty.” Not everyone would agree.
The story of Mandela is the story of the national liberation struggle as it has been waged so many times over the last 60 or so years. But this time there was something different. Like Mandela, Jomo Kenyatta was imprisoned before he became President of Kenya. Like Mandela, Kenyatta consistently asked white settlers not to leave Kenya and supported reconciliation. He did all the things that Mandela did, but he did them too soon. Kenyatta died in 1978 and the world did not go mad. Political Correctness had yet to become a major political force in the West, and white racism was not yet held by many to be the greatest evil of the time. Now it is and a great PC icon has died. The old Roman saying, De mortuis nihil nisi bonum (“Of the dead, nothing unless good.”) can never have been in greater demand than at this moment.