Column: Mandela and the communists

Published on December 10, 2013.

After his release from prison, Nelson Mandela was always in the media eye; the long international campaign to set him free had made him a global celebrity. How wonderful, then, to catch a glimpse of that exact moment when he encountered overwhelming media attention for the first time, and he began to realize the true nature of his fame.

In “Long Walk To Freedom,” his famous autobiography, there is an extended, affecting account of the day of his release. It includes the following passage:

“At first, I could not really make out what was going on in front of us, but when I was within one hundred fifty feet or so, I saw a tremendous commotion and a great crowd of people: hundreds of photographers and television cameras and newspeople as well as several thousand well-wishers. I was astounded and a little bit alarmed. I had truly not expected such a scene; at most, I had imagined that there would be several dozen people, mainly the warders and their families. But this proved to be only the beginning; I realized we had not thoroughly prepared for all that was about to happen.

“Within twenty feet or so of the gate, the cameras started clicking, a noise that sounded like some great herd of metallic beasts. Reporters started shouting questions; television crews began crowding in; ANC supporters were yelling and cheering. It was a happy, if slightly disorienting chaos. When a television crew thrust a long, dark, furry object at me, I recoiled slightly, wondering if it were some newfangled weapon developed while I was in prison. Winnie informed me that it was a microphone.”

* * *

As Mandela notes in the same chapter, he had spoken at press conferences before, some of them clandestine—but the most recent one was three decades in the past. The last time he was free to conduct them, John F. Kennedy was president of the United States and John XXIII was the Bishop of Rome. There may have been a twinkle in his eye when he recalled that anecdote about the microphone to Richard Stengel, the editor who wrote “the latter parts” of the book. (The bulk of it Mandela wrote in prison, starting in 1974.) But the power of the passage lies in a striking inversion: Here we have the subject, looking out at the media.

* * *

Like John Paul II, Mandela was one for the ages. Unlike the staunchly anticommunist pope, however, Mandela was a fellow traveler. And yet both were acclaimed around the world as moral icons. Are we missing something?

Right-wing warriors in the United States, who cannot forget Mandela’s searing words about US military or economic power, have welcomed the statement from the South African Communist Party confirming that Mandela was a party member and was in fact part of the central committee when he was arrested in 1962—“acknowledging,” one of them wrote, self-servingly, “what was already well-known among experts.”

I find the controversy over Mandela’s communist background irrelevant, however. Even when he was already president of South Africa, he never disowned his communist allies; he was loyal, for instance, to Joe Slovo, the party’s longtime leader, and paid him high praise. As for resorting to the armed struggle, Mandela’s role as commander of the African National Congress’ armed wing has long been recognized.

But it is not for these that Mandela is remembered. It is for emerging from prison (his imprisonment lasted several months longer than John Paul II’s 26-year reign) an unbroken man, free of all ill will against his captors, committed to both the ideal of a truly inclusive country and a peaceful transition. He had tried other means, and found them wanting.

Some of the best coverage of Mandela’s death can be found in The Economist; two pieces written under the Baobab title are particularly noteworthy. In the longer piece, “The Long Walk,” Mandela’s true legacy is summed up after a careful weighing of the sometimes inconvenient facts.

“His greater achievement … was to see the need for reconciliation, to forswear retribution and then to act as midwife to a new, democratic South Africa built on the rule of law. This was something only he could do.”

* * *

My friend Dina Kraft is one of the best, most compassionate journalists I know. On the day Mandela died, she posted the following recollection on Facebook. Of all the personal anecdotes put on record after his death by journalists who had covered or encountered Mandela, this for me was the loveliest. It is a small memory—that is to say, it is about a fleeting moment, on the sidelines of a less than historic event, and yet it reveals something fundamental about Mandela and his effect on people.

“I arrived in South Africa during the bewildering HIV denial phase of Mandela’s successor, Thabo Mbeki. Mandela had begun to speak out cautiously, but critically. The ANC, fearing a fractured front, arranged a peace-making news conference with Mandela and Jacob Zuma, then deputy president, and now president. I asked Zuma a series of critical questions about why the government was being so slow in rolling out an important drug to HIV-positive pregnant women that dramatically cut the rate of transmission to their babies. Afterwards, as I retrieved my tape recorder from the podium, Mandela spoke to me while smiling that heart-melting smile of his. He said, ‘I am very impressed. You show no fear.’ Shaking his hand, I could barely squeak out, ‘You are the brave one, the bravest man in the world.’”

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