Peter Godwin: The Real Legacy of Nelson Mandela

Roundup: Talking About History

Mr. Godwin is the author of The Fear: Robert Mugabe and the Martyrdom of Zimbabwe.

A frail Nelson Mandela, now 93, has gone back to Qunu, his ancestral home in rural Transkei, and his handlers have announced his withdrawal from public view. Even while he lives, unseemly squabbles have flared over the TV rights to his funeral.

Since he officially retired in 2004, Mr. Mandela has concentrated on his foundation, the charity that is already his earthly embodiment. It owns his archives and mementos and controls his endorsements, which it uses to raise money for social-justice projects. There is even brand Mandela—a fashion line called 46664 after his prisoner number. The clothes feature an embroidered outline of his palm. Meanwhile, his grandchildren are launching "Being Mandela," a TV reality show that is being pitched in the U.S. as a "docu-soap" with an anti-Kardashian philanthropic twist. 

Globally, Mr. Mandela, who emerged from 28 years in apartheid prisons to vanquish any thought of racial revenge, is already iconic—a symbol of our better nature, the personification of forgiveness and nonracialism. But this legacy, which is championed primarily by earnest foreigners and white South Africans, is not the only one.

Mr. Mandela's lasting political bequest to his own people and to the rest of Africa is more nuanced. What was crucial to South Africa's chances of a functional future was not so much anything he did in his short presidency, from 1994 to 1999, but rather his decision, like George Washington in the early days of the American republic, to step down. He easily could have stayed for a second term and then have ventriloquized his rule through some pliant placeholder...




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