- The Washington Times - Monday, December 9, 2013

Nelson Mandela was an important man, a public man of native gravitas, certainly a patient man, and maybe a great man as our age measures greatness. It’s too soon to know. We’ll have to wait until we can get Mandela without the tears.

It’s a characteristic of our age that we swing to and fro in measuring men, causes and events. An honorable death sometimes grants heads of state, kings, princesses, politicians and aspiring potentates a temporary idolatry that becomes embarrassing only later.

Assassinations are a category unique, of course. John F. Kennedy, in the days following his death, was widely acclaimed as a president who would be ranked with Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln, and then only because there was no higher rank in the pantheon of American presidents. The idolatry seemed over the top even then.

Princess Diana in death became “the people’s princess,” as if she had been a shop girl suddenly thrust into a palace, and shop girls across the world imagined that “she’s one of us,” paying no mind to the fact that she paid more for a pair of shoes than a London shop girl earned in months.


Nelson Mandela deserves the people’s tears, but the adulation of rich and poor, black and white, conservative and liberal, obscures the fact that he was after all a politician first, and a very good one. Anyone who observes politicians up close and personal rarely finds a saint among them.

Mr. Mandela deserves more than plaster or bronze; it’s just that we can’t yet know exactly how he’ll be remembered once the tears dry. The popular Drudge Report headlined the purple summaries of the early news accounts “World Prepares for Biggest Funeral Since Churchill.” The guess here is that the funeral will be a big-enough blowout, with his contemporaries lining up to croak a note over his grave, but Mr. Mandela will be remembered 75 years on as a figure somewhat smaller than Winston Churchill, if only because World War II is unique in history, and Africa, with all its injustices and bigotries, not all of them aimed at blacks by whites, will still be of less consequence than the other continents.

But irony is the savory sauce of history. Mr. Mandela bequeathed several gifts, not least his example of dignity and courage. Ernest Hemingway called it “grace under pressure.” Even his black-power salute (as cast in bronze at the South African Embassy in Washington) stands as a celebratory salute to the spirit of the revolution that freed his people.

“I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination,” he said at his trial in 1964, when he was sentenced to life in prison for acts of terrorism. “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realized. But my lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

These were not the empty words of a poseur, listening to himself being eloquent, but of a man going to prison knowing that he was not likely to outlive the sentence. He might not have said these words as a young man, when he was organizing the African National Congress and he regarded “compromise” as the euphemism for sellout. Though he is now an icon in “the beloved country,” the regard for him in that beloved country falls considerably short of the reverence and even worship in which he is held in “the outside world.”

One popular black-consciousness advocate and frequent critic, Andile Mngxitama, is contemptuous of the Mandela reputation abroad. “It’s not an exaggeration,” he wrote last summer when Mr. Mandela lay on his deathbed, “to say Mandela’s leadership style, characterized by accommodation with the oppressors, will be forgotten if not rejected within a generation.” Others, less unforgiving, argue only that he could bring down a government, but could not run one. (Perhaps he was too much the community organizer.)

“He made too many concessions,” Adam Habib, vice chancellor of the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg,” tells The New York Times. “The real victims of apartheid still have to live with the consequences. He is a global icon, a great leader, but he was not perfect.”

Perfection is the standard against which no politician can be measured. He was better than many, and that must be enough for now. Just how much better awaits the verdict of the years still to come.

Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.