The Procrustean Sainthood of Nelson Mandela

A strange thing happens when a political leader ascends to secular sainthood, as Nelson Mandela did in his old age and Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy did after their assassinations: The popular notion of sainthood starts to overwhelm their personal reputations. Whatever they stood for in their active careers, as saints they represent whatever saints represent. Saints speak divine truth; so whatever you think the divine truth is, that’s what you’ll imagine the saint said.

So, for example, one the most widely recognized Mandela quotes — “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.” — is something he didn’t say at all. But it sounds very generically saintlike, doesn’t it? That’s the kind of thing God should be trying to tell us, so it just stands to reason He would have said it through Nelson Mandela.

Except He didn’t.

Partisanship. The archetypal Saint is not divisive or partisan, so anything a particular saint stood for that isn’t universally accepted needs to be swept under the rug. So Martin Luther King is remembered for one sentence:

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

And not for the more radical statements he made with some regularity, like:

These are revolutionary times. All over the globe men are revolting against old systems of exploitation and oppression, and out of the wounds of a frail world, new systems of justice and equality are being born. The shirtless and barefoot people of the land are rising up as never before.


We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.

and especially not something really divisive, like:

All of America’s wealth today could not adequately compensate its Negroes for his centuries of exploitation and humiliation.

Quotes like that put King on one side and not the other. If we remembered King that way, only liberals could invoke his name, and conservatives would be stuck with the view of King they held when he was alive: that he was a dangerous left-wing radical. What kind of saint is that?

Ditto JFK. Because the memory of his real life has been overwhelmed by his post-assassination sainthood, he can be claimed by conservatives. Forget that the Great Society programs conservatives love to hate were proposals Kennedy couldn’t get Congress to pass (but that LBJ could after Kennedy’s death). He’s a saint, so he has to belong to everybody, no matter what he actually stood for.

Mandela’s real claim to sainthood. Nelson Mandela deserves our admiration for three simple reasons:

  • He was on the right side of history. In retrospect, it is clear to almost everyone that apartheid was wrong, just as it is clear that slavery was wrong and Jim Crow was wrong. (In their day, though, all these points were hotly debated. Those American conservatives who didn’t actively support apartheid usually held that it wasn’t our problem and viewed the South African government as our ally in the Cold War.) Mandela is the historical symbol of the battle against apartheid. No doubt various people did brave and noble things for apartheid at one time or another, but those people were on the wrong side of history so they will never be saints, just as Jefferson Davis is not seen as the equal of Abraham Lincoln.
  • He didn’t give up, no matter what they did to him. He approached his trial with an attitude he later described like this: “I felt we were likely to hang no matter what we said, so we might as well say what we truly believed.” Fearing Mandela’s martyrdom, the South African government did not hang him, but 27 years in prison didn’t break him. When the government gave in to the pressure to release him, he went back to leading the same movement he’d led when they arrested him.
  • When the pendulum swung his way, he used his power to seek peace rather than vengeance. One of the saintlike things Mandela really did say was: “Courageous people do not fear forgiving, for the sake of peace.” Post-apartheid South Africa opted for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission focused on finding and documenting the truth about the abuses of the apartheid government, rather than a set of show trials to settle scores.

So my point isn’t that he doesn’t deserve that level of admiration he is receiving. Rather, he deserves to be admired as the person he really was, not as some generic nice guy who was really brave and stuff.

The conservative attempt to claim Mandela. Basically, the logic goes like this: Mandela fought for freedom for his people. We have definitions of the words freedom and people that makes us freedom-fighters too. (We mean the people who own stuff, and their freedom to keep it, no matter how many hungry people have their noses pressed against the window. This definition may not look terribly different from the kind of freedom the apartheid regime recognized, but let’s not sweat the details.) So Mandela is one of us.

The dumbest and most outrageous invocation of Mandela this week came from Rick Santorum:

Nelson Mandela stood up against a great injustice and was willing to pay a huge price for that, and that’s the reason he is mourned today, because of that struggle that he performed…and I would make the argument that we have a great injustice going on right now in this country with an ever increasing size of government that is taking over and controlling people’s lives, and Obamacare is front and center in that.

So let’s completely forget Mandela’s real beliefs about health care, as expressed in section 27.1.a of the Bill of Rights in the South African constitution he campaigned for:

Everyone has the right to have access to ­health care services, including reproductive health care

In other words: Mandela’s beliefs about health care were the exact opposite of the position Santorum is invoking Mandela’s name to support.

What Mandela was. Nelson Mandela was a democratic socialist. In other words, he believed in the right of the people, through democratic elections and representative government, to correct the injustices of the existing property system and to regulate the workings of the market to achieve a more equitable outcome. At his trial, he said:

I am an admirer of such a [parliamentary] system. … [I]n my search for a political formula, I should be absolutely impartial and objective. I should tie myself to no particular system of society other than that of socialism.

When governments thwart lawful democratic methods for achieving justice, Mandela believed in breaking the law, even violently if necessary. At his trial he said:

We felt that without sabotage there would be no way open to the African people to succeed in their struggle against the principle of white supremacy. All lawful modes of expressing opposition to this principle had been closed by legislation, and we were placed in a position in which we had either to accept a permanent state of inferiority, or to defy the Government. We chose to defy the Government. We first broke the law in a way which avoided any recourse to violence; when this form was legislated against, and when the Government resorted to a show of force to crush opposition to its policies, only then did we decide to answer violence with violence.

He also was against racism, whether it was white-over-black or black-over-white.

[W]e want equal political rights, because without them our disabilities will be permanent. I know this sounds revolutionary to the whites in this country, because the majority of voters will be Africans. This makes the white man fear democracy. But this fear cannot be allowed to stand in the way of the only solution which will guarantee racial harmony and freedom for all. It is not true that the enfranchisement of all will result in racial domination. Political division, based on color, is entirely artificial and, when it disappears, so will the domination of one color group by another.

There’s a lot to admire here, but it is a particular point of view. It doesn’t capture all the wisdom and virtue that is contained in any point of view.

Mourning admirable people you disagree with. Death is a time to let by-gones be by-gones. The deceased can’t hurt you any more, so there’s no need to tear him down. His allies and admirers are sad, so it’s gracious not to salt their wounds*

But while there’s no need to dwell on past disagreements or re-fight old battles, it’s also gracious to let the deceased be the person he was, and let his reputation accrue to the side that he actually belonged to.

Nelson Mandela was a real person who lived and has now died. He did some admirable things and (in regard to the main issue of his career, the fight against apartheid) came out on the right side of the history. He had particular opinions and said some wise things.

But there is no need to recast him a generic saint who was all things to all people and a source of all wisdom. We respect him best by letting him be in death what he was in life.

*Ted Cruz, to his credit, took the high road in a Facebook post that praised Mandela without claiming him for the Tea Party. (Cruz’s followers were incensed.)

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  • By Basic Rights | The Weekly Sift on December 9, 2013 at 1:20 pm

    […] This week’s featured posts: “Rooting for Your Country to Fail is Unpatriotic” and “The Procrustean Sainthood of Nelson Mandela“. […]

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