Why It Was Mandela’s Flaws That Made Him Great

Bringing out the dead.
Dec. 5 2013 4:49 PM

Farewell, Madiba

Nelson Mandela’s human flaws, desires, and compromises—as much as his idealism and ability to forgive—helped to make him great.

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The reason: Many were furious that whites still control a huge proportion of capital in South Africa. Even now some young South Africans accuse Mandela of being a sellout to privileged minority interests. The deal he struck at the end of apartheid, they feel, saw a shift in political power but too little economic change.

I recall one bitter letter to a newspaper a decade ago in which Madiba was called “an albatross round our necks.” Poorer South Africans are the least likely to venerate him. For all the political change that came in 1994, South Africa’s economy is still remarkably dominated by whites.

But Mandela made the best of a very difficult economic job, stabilizing South Africa’s vulnerable post-apartheid economy, encouraging growth, and handing out welfare, even if rapid redistribution of assets between whites and blacks proved impossible to achieve quickly.

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His great achievement in policy was, of course, to oversee a profoundly liberal constitution for South Africa that enshrines racial, sexual, gender, and other rights. But also he could compromise, and admit the need to shift policy.

In his personal life, similarly, Mandela had his failings. Take his wife’s word for that. At an event marking Mandela’s 90th birthday, Graca Machel told me of her husband, “He is definitely not a saint!” With great warmth she related, too, how it “definitely wasn’t love at first sight” when the two met in 1990. Their great fondness for each other grew only later.

Even in old age Madiba had an eager eye for beautiful women. One female Irish journalist recalls how he offered to marry her, at a press conference. A close friend of mine, an Indian–South African, thought that Mandela had, in effect, offered to marry her, too (rather more seriously), right before Machel came along. As a young man, a handsome boxer, lawyer of near-regal descent, he was widely described as a heartbreaker.

He could be petty, too. At a small lunch I attended with him in 2005, old friends teased him about his being persnickety and pedantic, after he had demanded a particular brand of sparkling water and rejected another. He insisted that his newspapers and hearing aid be arranged just so. To be fair, he took the gentle mocking in good humor.

His children were known to resent him at times as a distant father. He could be aloof, stiff, and calculating. Machel told me that “Papa” (as she sometimes called her husband) could be stubborn, quick to anger, and intolerant when his grandchildren performed badly at school.

And particularly difficult questions should one day be answered about what he knew of the activities of Winnie Mandela, his second wife and the great love of his life. She, though acquitted in 1991 in one murder case (but convicted of kidnapping), remains under a cloud because of other unexplained deaths in Soweto in the 1980s. There is much yet to be revealed about the disappearances and deaths of political figures in the anti-apartheid movement.

In all this—and in his achievements as a rich, humane, but at times flawed figure—Mandela has much to offer other leaders. He liked to joke about his eventual death, chuckling that the first thing he would do in heaven—he had no doubt that he was headed there—would be to sign up for membership at the local branch of the African National Congress. It was his way of saying that he was a political and pragmatic man: not a saint. Remember him as a warm, powerful, and humane figure. Not an unearthly one.

Watch Nelson Mandela's 1994 Inaugural Address:

Adam Roberts was the Economist’s correspondent in South Africa from 2001 to 2005, and is now the magazine’s South Asia bureau chief, based in Delhi, India.

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