Nelson Mandela, Western Saint

Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, a Research Fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution, and a Professor of Classics and Humanities at the California State University. He is the author of nine books and numerous essays on classical culture and its influence on Western Civilization. His most recent book, Democracy's Dangers and Discontents (Hoover Institution Press), is now available for purchase.

lekThe passing of Nelson Mandela has been attended with the usual global encomia we have come to expect from those political leaders who have become international celebrities. Sometimes these extravagant praises and out-sized mourning surpass any real achievement. It is hard to find any justification in Princess Diana’s life for the hyperbolic praise and hysteria that saturated her funeral rites. Many another “leader of his people” or “liberator” has after his death been bestowed with dubious qualities and achievements, while his crimes and flaws are airbrushed from the narrative. That’s why George Orwell famously counseled, “Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent.”

Future historians may temper the current exalted judgment of Mandela, and there is much to remember as the world rushes to beatify him. His endorsement of communists and support for terrorists he made part of the struggle against apartheid should not be forgotten. Nor should be the victims of machete attacks and  “necklacing,” the gruesome practice of putting around the victim’s neck a tire filled with gasoline and then igniting it, This form of lynching was a favorite of the African National Congress, of which Mandela was a member.

But after spending 27 years in prison, Mandela recognized on his release in 1990 the pragmatic reality that the dismantling of apartheid and the inclusion of the black majority in governing South Africa meant that the revolutionary justice of the sort that has ruined Zimbabwe, and the command economy beloved by Marxists, both were the road to just another form of injustice and ultimately failure. Yes, on his release he proclaimed that “we have no option but to continue” the armed struggle, but what he did was negotiate with South African president F.W. de Klerk to achieve a relatively orderly and peaceful transition to black political participation.

Upon becoming president in 1994, Mandela also avoided the actions that could have plunged South Africa into violent civil war, and the economic disintegration that would have followed the imposition of a bankrupt socialist ideology that has devastated so many African nations. He championed “truth and reconciliation” instead of payback, and economic growth rather than dirigiste snake oil, instead selling off some government-owned industries. He eschewed petty symbolic changes that would have divided black and white South Africans rather than unite them. Thus he refused demands to change the name of the national soccer team, considered by many blacks a token of apartheid, and instead supported the team as a symbol of national unity. His generous persona pacified anxious whites and earned his government international prestige.

As the National Review has pointed out, however, once he became president Mandela seemingly kept his affection for the communist tyrants and other leftist autocrats who had supported him not on principle, but as a Cold War stick with which to beat the free West. He did the global tyrant circuit, visiting Fidel Castro and other thugs, and giving them outrageous moral support that ignored their crimes and their much more brutal prisons than the one in which he had been imprisoned. As National Review writes, “He used his moral authority to buttress the prisoners’ jailers and torturers. He praised Qaddafi’s ‘commitment to the fight for peace and human rights in the world.’ (One of Mandela’s grandsons, incidentally, was named for Qaddafi.) 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.’” And he indulged the uncritical, crude anti-Americanism that is the rosary of the international left, saying of the United States, “If there is a country that has committed unspeakable atrocities in the world, it is the United States of America.”

There is, however, more significance to Mandela’s life than the achievements noted by his encomiasts, or even his flaws. Like Gandhi before him, Mandela was a creation of the West. He was trained in the Western-modeled universities of Fort Hare, which was created for black Africans, and the University of Witwatersrand, which admitted some black students even under apartheid. He was influenced by anti-colonial and Marxist ideology, the origins of which lay not in tribal culture but in European civilization. He also had available the uniquely Western liberal-democratic ideals such as equality, human rights, non-violence, anti-racism, and democracy, precious little of which can be found elsewhere in Africa. His efforts against the nuclear-armed South African apartheid regime were ultimately successful because they were directed against a Western civilization that could be appealed to on the basis of those ideals and that would be reluctant to use massive violence. And this appeal created sympathetic supporters both in white South Africa and across the world, who made the cause of black South Africans their own and provided material and moral support.

Indeed, Mandela could not have succeeded against any other than a liberal-democratic Western country. His efforts would in the end have been as futile as Gandhi’s silly 1939 letter to Adolph Hitler, which begged for peace from the dictator who counseled England’s Lord Halifax, “Kill Gandhi, if that isn’t enough then kill the other leaders too, if that isn’t enough then two hundred more activists, and so on until the Indian people will give up the hope of independence.” What Mandela’s career demonstrates is the power of Western ideals which, despite the universal evils of human nature that have tarnished Western history, could transcend those brutal constants of history and effect change on the basis of principle rather than violence. From this perspective, Mandela represents the intellectual incoherence of anti-Western multiculturalism, which uses Western ideals like anti-colonialism and anti-racism to demonize the West, and ignores the unique principles of the West without which a Mandela or a Gandhi would have ended up forgotten failures.

Second, for all its brutality and injustice, in the scale of continuing global oppression and violence apartheid was not the monumental and unique evil into which Western liberal intellectuals and leftists carrying water for communist regimes made it. It’s curious that many black Africans illegally immigrated into an apartheid South Africa supposedly akin to Nazi Germany. Without that publicizing of apartheid in the West, Mandela’s efforts would have fallen on deaf ears. Just look at the relative indifference to the massive slaughters in Rwanda and the Congolese civil war, the oppression of Uighurs and Tibetans by the Chinese, the millions massacred in Sudan, or the mainstream media’s blackout of the on-going genocide of Christians in the Muslim Middle East. All that suffering, rape, torture, plunder, and murder do not gratify the endemic self-loathing of leftist Westerners that made apartheid a crime against humanity on a par with Nazism. Thus those other instances of violence are not elevated into a global cause demanding divestment, boycotts, and international shunning. No doubt many Westerners were sincerely moved by the injustice of racialist exclusion, but why haven’t we seen an equally intense reaction to the other, in many cases much worse, examples of oppression and violence?

Nelson Mandela’s achievements deserve recognition. We can even accept that the darker shadows of his portrait will be ignored. But we should acknowledge that his life is a testimony not just to his own character and deeds, but to the unique goods of Western civilization that made Mandela and his achievements possible.

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  • Bryce Armstrong

    So I take ithat itstoo soon for you to start calling him a conservative, huh?

  • ApolloSpeaks


    the humane, saintly but very flawed Nelson Mandela (he was a deluded communist at heart) became president of South Africa on May 10, 1994, the 129th anniversary of the end of the American Civil War; and left office 1861 days later, symbolizing the year the American Civil War began. For more on the fascinating subject of Providence and Mandela click

  • Ampersand

    I was in South Africa both before the ANC took over (and after, also). I can testify that many black Africans from Zimbabwe came to South Africa because, to quote one, “I’m treated much better in SA than in my home country. There, I’m the wrong tribe (Matabele) and they are taking my family’s land from them.”

    Also, one of the features of the ANC resistance was concentration camps for black South African patriots who opposed the ANC. The head of one of these camps, Mzwai Piliso, got a hand-slap by the ANC and has a street named after him in Joberg.

    Mandela overall did far better than many other African leaders in leading the transition to a better government and society. Let’s hope that they can overcome their overwhelming problems and become a beacon of success for Africa.

  • A Z

    1. “His efforts against the nuclear-armed South African apartheid regime were ultimately successful because they were directed against a Western civilization that could be appealed to on the basis of those ideals”

    2. Indeed, Mandela could not have succeeded against any other than a liberal-democratic Western country.

    3. “Kill Gandhi, if that isn’t enough then kill the other leaders too, if that isn’t enough then two hundred more activists, and so on until the Indian people will give up the hope of independence.” -H/tler

    Pretty much irrefutable.

    • A Z

      “Kill Gandhi, if that isn’t enough then kill the other leaders too, if that isn’t enough then two hundred more activists, and so on until the Indian people will give up the hope of independence.” -H/tler

      Why have this H/tler quote been disseminated widely? Maybe the because a person would have to come to the conclusions Mr Thornton wrote above.

  • GuyGreen

    As sane, compassionate and accurate an eulogy as I have thus far seen. I am not in the least surprised that it comes from Daniel Greenfield. The man maintains his strangle hold on reality. Lonely duty well accepted.

  • theoprinse

    Thank for the asrticle and many goof arguments agaisnt Mandela.
    I do not think he deserves recognition because Mandela was merely he pawn between teh east and rhe west and South Africa in the hands of communists like Joe Slovo was a compensation for the downfall of the Soviet Union.
    The reconcilliation was nothing more than a DDR bridge exchanging eastern and western spies.
    South Africa was part of what became communist Angola, communist Zimbabwe and communist Mozambique.

  • monostor

    The name of the soccer team needed no change because soccer is the black people’s national sport in SA. What Mandela kept was the name of the rugby team, the Springboks.

    • T100C1970

      And the rugby team name “All Blacks” was already claimed by New Zealand :-) .. Springbok also (at least used to be) the call sign of the RSA national airline.. Don’t know if it still is.

  • jewdog

    Great article, Bruce.
    I would just add my own opinion on the relative Western neglect of Third World atrocities as having its root in the inability of people to identify with the protagonists in a conflict. For example, the Rwanda genocide involved black Africans only, so whites have a harder time relating to that conflict, than, say, to Apartheid, which involved whites. The same thing applies to the persecution of Christians in Muslim countries, where there is some concern by Westerners, but not nearly as much concern as that shown over Muslim attacks in Western countries.
    Mandela is idealized so much because, for all his faults, his relatively gentle liberation helped guilt-ridden whites feel good about themselves.