Nelson Mandela, RIP

Roundup: Historians' Take
tags: South Africa, Nelson Mandela

Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom, Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full, A Matter of Principle, and the recently published Flight of the Eagle: The Grand Strategies That Brought America from Colonial Dependence to World Leadership. He can be reached at

Nelson Mandela was born into the Thembu faction of the Xhosa, the tribal equivalent of the royal family, which enabled him to receive a good education, although he was suspended from school for boycotting the food and became a lawyer only after failing three times to complete his law course at Witwatersrand. (He was the only black student, and may have been the victim of discrimination.) His noble lineage and upbringing conferred on him a stature and bearing and dignity that he never lost and that commanded the respect of all throughout his adult life.

Though the tremendous outpouring of admiration that has followed his death is certainly merited — for his generosity of spirit and immense courage throughout his imprisonment of 27 years, most of it in severe conditions — the great esteem in which he is held obscures and transcends some matters of legitimate controversy.

There is no doubt that, although Mandela was brought up a Methodist and was a somewhat enthusiastic Christian for a time (a Bible teacher, in fact), and that he and his image-makers have soft-pedaled his dalliance with the Communists, he certainly was one for many years....

When Mandela finally was released in 1990, he declared that he was conducting “a purely defensive armed struggle.” The white leadership had bungled away any bargaining power: If they had loosened things up years before, granted local autonomy to Zulus, Cape Coloureds, East Indians, and others, and produced a federal structure with more entrenchment of minority rights, and not sent decent people like Mandela and most of his colleagues off to prison or exile for decades, they would not have lost their entire position in South Africa and the 750,000 whites who departed the country in the balance of the Nineties. Mandela did well to placate the factions of his riven country, going to the victory of the white rugby team and setting up his Truth and Reconciliation Commission under Tutu, which ascertained the facts by granting immunity, but did not wreak vengeance. He took over a country of 40 million, where 23 million did not have electricity, a third were illiterate, a third unemployed, and 12 million did not have clean water. Under Mandela, the ANC did provide new housing for 3 million, telephones for 3 million, electricity for 2 million, and education for 1.5 million more children, and better health care for all children. [But] once in power, he dropped his decades-long enthusiasm for wholesale economic nationalization but proved, like Lech Walesa in Poland, to be a better moral than practical leader.

Read entire article at National Review