It is hard to read tributes to Nelson Mandela without recalling how strenuously the governments that now hymn his praises sought to marginalize the jailed “terrorist” leader who threatened their interests while apartheid South Africa was still a valuable Cold War ally. Prime Minister Thatcher famously dismissed the ANC as “a typical terrorist organization” and President Reagan had no qualms about describing Mandela himself as a terrorist. (The US government reportedly kept Mandela on a terrorist watch list until 2008.) For most of the 1980s Western democracies were quite willing to tolerate the misery of black South Africans as a necessary evil, one that might be privately condemned but should not be allowed to unsettle any strategic political alliances.
One of the unstated assumptions of this worldview was that the legacy of apartheid was too toxic for a transition to multiracial democracy to succeed. It was deemed impractical, if not impossible, to move from such long repression towards something resembling a representative democracy. Nobody, it was said, could oversee such momentous change without scuttling the miracle of the South African economy, or yielding to the temptations of revenge. One measure of Mandela’s remarkable political gifts is that he managed to thwart both predictions with a quiet grace that made the miraculous seem inevitable.
Every schoolboy learns that war is the continuation of politics by other means. But the growth of Mandela’s moral and political vision during his prison years — after being jailed by a violent and apparently implacable enemy — show that a true statesman can reverse the formula. When he emerged from Robben Island and averted what many believed was an unavoidable conflict, Mandela showed that in the right hands, democratic politics remains a workable alternative to the more familiar historical cycles of repression and revenge. His transcendent skill in avoiding easy confrontations and emphasizing the common interests and humanity of all South Africans were a large part of what made him such a formidable politician.
Mandela never forgot the power of conversation, nor the value of negotiation. As president of the new South Africa he remained inclusive to a fault. When the ANC set about drafting a new constitution after the 1994 elections, he insisted that all party members be given the opportunity to voice opinions on each clause, no matter how long such a daunting feat of collective editing might prove. As it happened, what promised to be an extraordinarily tedious undertaking turned out to be a transformative political act. Nearly everyone learned something new from debating every facet of the constitution, and many came to realize how difficult, and necessary, it was to reach an accommodation with the competing interests inside a modern society.
It is not possible to summarize such a complex man in a few phrases, but it is not hard to get a sense of his charm. When he was simply prisoner 466/64 from the B Section of the prison on Robben Island, smashing rocks for eight to ten hours a day, his charisma was palpable. James Gregory, a former prison guard, told the Independent newspaper that he and Mandela, “spoke about everything ‒ his family, my family. But never politics, and [he was] never trying to convince me of his views.” This nicely captures the preternatural patience and tact that paved the way for so many of Mandela’s political triumphs. From a young age it seems that he knew, intuitively, that human contact was enough to undermine any political narrative. At the age of 46 he was a nameless terrorist to his prison guards, but by the end of his prison sentence he had become a father figure to several of them. Using little more than conversation he showed that it was possible to reach a broad understanding on political questions even when these were never explicitly addressed.
Mandela understood the power of political gestures better than most of his contemporaries. He wore a Springbok rugby shirt to show that the new South Africa could co-opt even the most difficult symbols of white nationalism, and he visited the widow of Hendrik Verwoerd, one of the intellectual authors of apartheid. Further afield he remained surprisingly loyal to questionable political allies in Cuba and Libya — because of their support of the struggle against apartheid. Undeniably, he also made serious miscalculations — both in his personal and political life — but it was characteristic of the man that he was willing to concede his mistakes and to try to atone for them. He was slow to take up the challenge of HIV/AIDS, for example, but did so with impressive vigour once he realized his mistake.
Even when stripped of its hagiographic qualities, Nelson Mandela’s remarkable life is an inspiring example of how much history still turns on the actions of a few men. It is hard to survey his legacy without wondering what the Caribbean might look like if we had been blessed with politicians with similar gifts.