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.

A group of American and South African students, aged from 11 to 19, met with Nelson Mandela at the Nelson Mandela Foundation in Johannesburg, on 2 June 2009. This is part of a series of activities ahead of Mandela Day on 18 July.
Nelson Mandela in 2009.

Photo by Theana Calitz/Gallo Images/Foto24/Getty Images

Be in no doubt that Nelson Mandela, the world’s most famous political prisoner, campaigner against racist rule, and magnanimous leader, was a great man. When spending time with him, one felt awed, weak at the knees. Madiba, the tribal name by which he was fondly known by many, had charm and warmth. He was also responsible, more than any other individual, for the remarkably peaceful transition in South Africa.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Madiba’s close friend and fellow leader of the anti-apartheid campaign, once told me how he felt an immense “generosity of spirit” from Mandela. The archbishop naturally saw Christian elements in Madiba’s readiness to forgive his white racist abusers, and his compassion for the weak. “You can even think of Jesus—it’s quite in order to say that there are Christ-like aspects of him.”

But you shouldn’t remember him as a saint. Bishop Tutu didn’t think of him this way—guffawing at the idea that Mandela was anything so dry, hollow, and uninteresting. He may be compared to the likes of Mahatma Gandhi or Mother Teresa, as a great moral figure of our times. But the myth should not overpower the reality of a humane, richly complicated, and passionate individual.

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In comparison with other politicians, in Africa and beyond, he stands out for his self-restraint. As free South Africa’s first president, he volunteered for only a single term in office. Look just next door, to Zimbabwe, for a striking contrast: Its near-despotic leader, Robert Mugabe, is now in his fourth, disastrous, decade as ruler.

Yet Madiba is far more interesting than either the villain next door or the simple saintly figure. His achievements are the greater because he himself admitted to errors, at times bungling policy. Those failings matter. He was more likely to learn from mistakes than the haughty sort of leader who refuses to accept he made any. Others should pay as much attention to his slip-ups as to his achievements.

Take the great post-apartheid misery that South Africa suffered in the first two decades of democracy: the AIDS epidemic. Mandela failed as president to tackle the spread of HIV, even as terrifyingly large numbers of South Africans became infected. As early as 1991 he had grasped (judging from one of his private notebooks from that year) that the disease threatened a “crisis for the country.” Yet in office he did almost nothing to stop its spread.

He recalled later at an event I attended in Cape Town that after spending so many years in prison, he was shy when it came to talking about a sexually transmitted virus. South Africa, too, faced a host of other challenges on his watch—political violence, economic upheaval, ongoing racial tension. But his inaction on AIDS then gave way to the outright denial of the epidemic, and harassment of those who tried to tackle the spread of HIV, by his successor as president, Thabo Mbeki. The result was a pandemic that claimed millions of South African lives, many unnecessarily, as drugs to treat victims were long withheld.

To his immense credit, however, Mandela conceded his early error. After leaving the presidency, he became a significant part of a campaign for a new AIDS policy. In retirement, he would speak up for effective education and treatment, especially when his own son succumbed to the disease in 2005. To Mbeki’s fury, too, Madiba pushed within the ruling African National Congress for South Africa to tackle AIDS seriously. With the denialist Mbeki gone from office, thankfully the country has now come to grips with the pandemic.

Or take economic policy. After years in prison, Mandela emerged to lead South Africa still believing, in effect, in Soviet-style economics. It took advice from China’s leaders (among others) to change his mind. But he was willing to switch, to get South Africa’s Afrikaner state-run economy to open up and flourish.

For that, South Africa should be grateful. The past two decades of relative stability and steady economic growth went far better than many predicted would follow the end of apartheid rule. Yet many young, jobless, and angry South Africans are, understandably, still angry. Some attack Mandela as a stooge and a fool for abandoning nationalist, populist, or far-left policies of old.

I recall attending a funeral for a much-loved African nationalist leader in Soweto in 2003, at which both Madiba and Mugabe were present. The crowd of mostly young African men roared in far louder appreciation for the Zimbabwean strongman than for Mandela or any other leader present.

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