Nelson Mandela and Political Sainthood

Nelson Mandela was laid to rest today in Qunu, a town in the idyllic South African hill country straight out of Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country. I thought of Paton’s novel several times over the past week, as torrents of remembrances were beamed about the world. Written in just before the South African regime formally established Apartheid, it presaged both the darkness of the decades of repression that Mandela fought so persistently. The characters, white and black, admirable and questionable, were almost certainly straight out of Mandela’s life. But most importantly, it also presaged Mandela’s greatest triumph.

Mandela was an idealist, but idealists are a dime a dozen. He suffered hardship and a long prison sentence, but he’s hardly alone there, either. He was the first president of a reborn nation in the 1990s, but there were quite a few of those in the days after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and some of them didn’t turn out very good. No: like the two protagonists in Paton’s novel, Mandela transcended all of that, and managed to bring some healing to a profoundly broken nation.

It wasn’t perfect, of course. Contemporary South Africa has its share of horrors, from AIDS and crime to ongoing poverty and division. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission that investigated Apartheid era abuses did not prosecute those who came forward, a compromise that was brilliant for its political savvy but neither put the past to rest nor brought the worst abusers to justice. Mandela’s political party, the African National Congress, has an unhealthy level of control, and, as shown by the boos for current President Jacob Zuma at Mandela’s funeral, politicians in South Africa will long be stuck in his shadow. By the end of his life, Mandela was the closest thing the world had to a political saint.

Sainthood, of course, suggests a religious dimension, and while people argue over how much his faith informed his actions, Mandela’s willingness to pursue truth and reconciliation instead of revenge or simply burying the past has religious undertones. It reminds us of religious figures like King and Gandhi; the formal process in South Africa was headed by Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Religious people don’t have a monopoly on forgiveness, but most faiths place an emphasis on its virtues, and the moral authority of faith can compel people to transcend base desires. In that sense, it’s easy to see why modern South Africa’s founding father came to be more than just a popular politician.

My first reaction to someone upheld as a political saint, however, involves a healthy dose of skepticism. It’s not that I think politicians are naturally depraved, or doubt the goodness of many of Mandela’s actions; I’m just not one to elevate any one person too high up. Anyone who’s read my political coverage on this blog knows this; I’m often critical of people I agree with, and I’m also the sort of person who could probably find a smidgen of common ground with Pol Pot. (I hasten to add that an instant of shared humanity in no way excuses crimes against humanity.) For everything he achieved, there are things about Mandela that give us pause, from flirtations with communist-backed revolution to adultery.

These critiques, however, miss the point. Sainthood is not and never has been earthly perfection; to say so ignores the biographies of most saints, and is also a horrible misreading of Christian theology, in which everyone is fallen anyway. Dividing the world into sinners and saints is useless, because saints are sinners, too. Traditional saints attain that status by giving themselves up before God; secular saints give themselves to their country, or to the greater good of humanity.

This can be a dangerous road. Commitment to something higher can come at the neglect of the immediate, and leads to painful choices, or choices that should be painful but get short shrift due to revolutionary devotion. We want to believe in causes greater than ourselves, but how far dare we go in fighting for those causes? Are we willing to put our loved ones in danger, and will there be collateral damage? Noble as their causes may be, many freedom fighters battle on without ever stopping to examine their consciences; there is no time for dithering, nothing to be gained from second thoughts or examinations of moral complexity. Mandela, perhaps during those terrible years on Robben Island where he was alone with his thoughts, did not fall into that trap when his time came.

That time was the early 1990s, when the international order that had propped up the Apartheid regime—the dualism of the Cold War—broke down. Stripped of its anti-communist clients, the regime had to change, and though his motives may not have been all that idealistic, President F.W. DeKlerk’s willingness to accept reality took uncommon resolve, and he deserved the Nobel Prize he shared with Mandela. And so he passed the torch to South Africa’s first black president, and Mandela managed to allay the fears of those who predicted further fracture and violence. “The great valley of Umzimkulu is still in darkness, but the light will come there. Ndotsheni is still in darkness, but the light will come there also,” Paton wrote in his novel’s closing lines. “For it is the dawn that it has come, as it has come for a thousand centuries, never failing. But when that dawn will come, of our emancipation, from the fear of bondage and the bondage of fear, why, that is a secret.” Mandela gave Paton, who died just before his prison release, the answer he’d awaited.

Elevation to sainthood also takes an intense toll on the saint, as anyone who’s read of Mother Teresa’s crises of faith will know. Greatness is often akin to loneliness, and some of the more poignant Mandela memorials revealed the isolation of his later years. He was beloved by his people and genuinely loved them back, but he’d led such a different life from all of them that he was left with a certain emptiness. Some found it a bit odd that the third wife of this champion of the people was the ex-first lady of Mozambique, but as someone who had known and loved another revolutionary figure, Graça Machel was probably one of the few people on earth who could actually relate to the thoughts going through the aging Mandela’s mind.

This loneliness was no sign of weakness, but instead seals Mandela’s greatness. He could have remained a revolutionary to the end, but he was too self-conscious for that, and rather than fight the unending fight, he also sought acceptance, comfort, and assurances that everything he’d done was worthwhile. It was, and his ability to recognize that in spite of his doubts is one of the greatest gifts a person can possess. Humans are neither gods nor beasts, but they can channel both, and at his best, Mandela reached for the former with a rare combination of humility and moral clarity. Both in his triumphs and his complexity, he became larger than life, and his ability to make peace with that role should stand the test of time.


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