As we go to press, Nelson Mandela is in critical condition in a Pretoria, South Africa hospital. He is the subject of much discussion and admiration. World leaders, including President Barack Obama, are jockeying for a final opportunity to visit with him.
It is difficult to think of Mandela without trying to identify another world leader to compare him with. But such comparisons tend to come up short. Like Mandela, Natan Sharansky derives much of his moral influence from having been imprisoned by a hated regime and emerging unbent and optimistic. Although both men entered politics, Mandela was omnipresent in the new South Africa, and Sharansky remains one voice — albeit a strong and influential one — among many in the cacophony of Israeli politics.
After Mandela left prison in 1999, he was criticized for embracing Yasser Arafat, Moammar Gadhafi and Fidel Castro, a trio of autocrats who were the antithesis of the liberal democracy Mandela said he wanted to build. But Mandela said that the three were among the few who had championed his cause during the dark years of his anti-apartheid struggle, and he said that he owed allegiance to them. While his loyalty to those who supported him is impressive, his support for three notorious bad guys has always been a tough pill to swallow. Even so, consistent with his uncanny ability to reinvent himself in new roles, Mandela moved on from the thugs and became a reliable ally of liberal democracies.
Nelson Mandela has been lauded around the world for his almost singular ability to turn oppression and incarceration into sweet, not bitter, fruit. Resentment, he said, “is like drinking poison and hoping it will kill your enemies.” While he unquestionably harbored resentment, he seized the opportunity to lead South Africa in a new direction and was successful.
In this, his impact and accomplishments are of a different type than that of leaders of even larger, more powerful countries. In some ways, including his self-imposed term limit on his presidency, despite having no serious political competition, Mandela’s legacy most resembles the first president of another divided, squabbling nation at the edge of a continent. With not much more than his character, moral suasion, leadership ability and a knack for the theatrical, George Washington set down the blueprint for a United States that we can still recognize. So, too, Mandela in South Africa.
In these days of Mandela’s illness, it has become a little easier to see the kind of person and leader it takes to be the father of a country.