Nelson Mandela is dead. I feel relieved for him and his family. Nauseated at the often absurd coverage of the event in the UK media. Sad at yet another confirmation that the era of great men has given way to the almost universal reign of the indifferent, the ordinary, the petty-minded administrators of tax revenue.
He was to come to prominence in a very different age. His cause, long before it was made fashionable by pop stars and simple-minded sloganisers, obliged both Conservative and Labour governments in Britain to look to what they thought was a higher national interest than majoritarian politics in Africa. The 1980s version of this debate was used by the left of centre Channel 4 News in Britain to settle party political scores with those, mostly dead or irrelevant, in the Conservative Party who did not worship at the shrine of Mandela. Smug, self-righteous, sanctimoniousness abounds, a chance for people to feel good about what records they bought, what stickers they wore, what demos they went on thirty years ago.
The sin of having equated him with terrorism is once again ritually trotted out, as if it is only a term of abuse and not ever a tactic of politics and of war. To target or threaten civilians or civilian life, to seek to wreck or undermine public stability in order to realise a political objective, this is the stuff of armed struggle. It is what the Royal Air Force did against German cities during World War Two and it is what the armed wing of the ANC began to undertake under Mr Mandela’s command before he was incarcerated. It may well be the action of freedom fighters too. The French Resistance killed not just for revenge but to achieve political goals by spreading fear. That is what terrorists do.
Nelson did not agree with the targeting of civilians. He was arrested before the shedding of civilian blood became more acceptable in ANC circles and before he would either have had to resign or accept responsibility for it. I have heard no debate in the last 24 hours about these issues nor any serious assessment of the wisdom of Mr Mandela in going as far as he did in reassuring business and, effectively, white interests that in office neither he or the ANC would rock the boat that much. The legacy of that “pact” continues to this day.
It is ironic perhaps that people all over the world are so ready to deify Nelson as a secular saint when in their own country they bemoan the fact that democracy is “merely” about one person one vote every 4 to 5 years. Twenty two years after his release South Africa struggles to be even that, given the lawlessness and violence that is the stuff of daily life in some cities and the treatment that can be meted out to striking trade unionists.
If Nelson has one simple and yet rare political legacy to be applauded it is his promotion of inclusion and reconciliation. This from a man who could so easily have pursued narrow, sectional and vindictive interests. He is still revered by regimes and militant groups who have every interest in the slogans of liberation but who usually fail to understand that inclusion is not achieved by the denial of the humanity of the other. Just as he did not dress his cause in a racial colour, so Mandela had no sympathy with the communal politics of many of his sympathisers in the Middle East. These are attributes worth remembering and worth revering.