Mandela the sinner? Mandela the prophet? Yes, cover both

One of the greatest mysteries in life is the moral complexity that is often found in the hearts of great men and women who live truly great lives and, even, in their best moments perform great deeds that can be called blessed, or even holy.

There is no question that the turning points in the life of Nelson Mandela, the times when he went to the mountaintop, required him to make stunningly courageous choices about issues that can only be described in terms of morality and justice, forgiveness and grace, sin and redemption. Where did the content of these decisions — especially his decisions to oppose vengeance and revenge on white oppressors — come from? What was the well from which Mandela was drinking?

Yes, he was a brilliant political figure and a flair for the dramatic. But something else was going on, too.

Meanwhile, what about the many personal valleys along the way?

Out of today’s tsunami of coverage, much of it hagiographic in nature, I thought two pieces stood out in wrestling with this duality. Consider the top of a major news essay at The Daily Beast, which even dares to use the term “sinner,” in large part because the great man himself spoke it.

The headline? “Mandela: The Miracle Maker.”

Nelson Mandela, who died December 5, refused to be thought of as a saint. “I never was one,” he insisted — “even on the basis of an earthly definition of a saint as a sinner who keeps trying.”

He wasn’t just being modest. He had a weakness for fine clothes and good-looking women, and he certainly was no pacifist. But a halo was the last thing Mandela needed. He spent half a century wrestling South Africa’s white-minority rulers to the negotiating table, and when he finally got them there, he had to be a hard bargainer, not a holy man.

And yet he worked miracles. … By insisting on looking forward rather than back, Mandela kept the nation from collapsing into a bloody orgy of revenge. Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, who received the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize for his role in the fight against apartheid, said it unequivocally to Mandela’s biographer Anthony Sampson: “If this man hadn’t been there, the whole country would have gone up in flames.” No one else — not even Tutu himself — had the moral authority to hold South Africa together.

The question journalists are wrestling with, of course, is this: What was the source and nature of his moral authority?

A sidebar at The Los Angeles Times directly addressed this issue, as well.

I am fascinated that Mandela — who talked about the role of faith in African life — was so aware of the fact that many of his admirers viewed him in terms that verged on sanctity. This was simply too simplistic for Mandela. The halo didn’t fit, but at crucial moments he still managed to do the right thing.

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa – An irritable man who got cross when he couldn’t have his favorite brand of mineral water? A fusser who obsessively folded his daily newspapers just so, who got annoyed if things weren’t lined up in their precise order? An aloof man who nonetheless flirted with any pretty young woman he met?

Could these accounts really tally with one of the world’s most beloved men, Nelson Mandela?

In his lifetime, Mandela always insisted that he wasn’t a saint, and by all accounts was quite irritated with the gilded view of him as an almost mystical figure. He even asked the Nelson Mandela Foundation to avoid using images of his face, which had become a kind of trademark, and focus on other things, such as his hands. He ordered them to make room for other people’s voices and memories. But the idolatry endured.

Idolatry? You mean, like putting his face in stained-glass in a church?

The myth had a price, said Verne Harris, project leader at the Nelson Mandela Center of Memory, a unit of the Nelson Mandela Foundation.

“In the process, all the complexities of this human being, all the flaws and elements of his characters and his life which don’t fit just get left out,” he said. “There’s a lot of ignorance. After all, he led an armed struggle. By many definitions he was a terrorist. That’s been washed away.”

What’s my point? Many of the Mandela pieces today have, simply stated, turned this man in a secular, political saint.

That’s simply too shallow a portrait, if the goal is to capture the depths of a man who faced the moral — yes, moral — choices that Mandela faced in both his personal and public lives. So where did the strength come from, to balance that human frailty? That’s the mix journalists need to seek.

This sinner seemed to know he need forgiveness. He proved it by pushing others to forgive. That’s a great, and very complex, story to cover.

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Elizabeth Evans

    Hello, Tmatt: There was an interesting analysis of Mandela’s Christian faith “discret” posted on La Croix (my apologies, it’s, eh, in French). Of course, this isn’t a secular outlet, but I thought it was interesting, nonetheless. Here’s the link: http://www.la-croix.com/Actualite/Monde/Nelson-Mandela-un-chretien-discret-2013-12-06-1071948

  • markkrite

    Fine, Terry, but what about the “NECKLACING” that Nelson and Winnie engaged in back in the day? Where they put a tire doused in gasoline over the necks of their enemies and LIT IT? Doesn’t sound much like a “saintly” action to me, secular or otherwise. And how about his Communist Party Of South Africa ties? and also the same ties through the ANC? What of the womanizing? The three marriages? I’m sorry, this is too much for me. It’s all become just another excuse for the world’s lamestream media to engage in another orgy of leftist adulation for one of “theirs.’And really nothing else. Sorry I’m being harsh.

    • Alana de Kock

      Nelson Mandela was in prison on Robben Island, he was never involved in necklacing! As for the Communist Party, it has a democratic right to exist and as for Mandela’s personal life…how about not casting stones.

      • Jonenred

        why are leftists such terrible people?

        • Alana de Kock

          I don’t understand your question.

  • Katalina

    Originally Nelson Mandela was supposed to be the king of South Africa but it Dix not turn that way, so eventually due to his wife Winnie who was a Communist she managed to make him one as well. During his almost twenty year rule he had small innocent children who happened to be white starving to death. He imposed Communism on South Africa. So while he may have appeared to be a freedom lovef and a unifier, the fact he and Winnie seems lost on most people in all of this coverage. He also had a personality cult which is why he is made like a deity.

    • Charles Mostert

      He was a communist? Oh boy! Im a white South African. If it was not for dear mr. Mandela the sins of the Fathers would have been judged on us, their children for the next century. Dear Katalina, you obviously know nothing, kindly hide your ignorence. Its teribly unbecoming.

      He was a christian.
      He was democrat.
      He forgave my fathers: white racist oppressors.
      He stopped his people from takeing vengance.
      And most importantly: he gave us (white south africans) the change to change and become his brothers.

      If this does not change your mind, excatly wo did you have in mind for South Africa?

      • Jonathan

        Mr Mostert, Your response to Katalina is unkind, and throwing around a word such as “ignorance” is unbecoming in itself.

        Anyway, Madiba was a communist (see original freedom charter) according to history and could not get anything done financially until he distanced himself from it – this is a well known fact.

        He was a good man on the one hand and did some terrible things on the other. He was a man, a sinner like us all. He deserves our respect, but that is all. Respect

        Let us not forget the great work of PW Botha who began the slow process of dismantling the apartheid machinery and also FW De Klerk who is seldom remembered as the one who gave Mandela the means of doing the good work he did.

        Not all whites were “racist oppressors”, this is a generalization and evidence of misplaced “white guilt”, which I cannot understand personally. Both sides had good and bad points and today we still feel the effects of those misguided days.

        We should remember that both sides committed grave atrocities and that no one side is the better. The sooner we give up the chips on our shoulders and love our neightbour, the better.

        Let us be balanced and grateful that things turned out so well for our beloved country, South Africa!

        Also, let us continue to pray for his soul. The reports may say that he is already home, but we know that even the best require purification after death.

        May his soul,…+

        • Charles Mostert

          Sorry, i forgot he was the sole Author of that document.on the all whites as racist oppressors…sorry for speaking generally about all caucasians…

          Also very apologetic of being unkind towards ignorance…one should always nurture all forms of opinion.

          So much fun to read about your own back yard and find out that you had no idea!

          • Jonathan

            Dear Charles,

            Well he certainly was not the “sole authour” of the charter, but did subscribe to it, and as I said he was unable to move forward with economy in the 90′s due to this position.

            The pressure from international leaders brought him to the application of capitalistic versus communistic economical policy.

            All sarcasm aside and in charity I reply that I have studied South African and African history at NMMU, and I believe I know enough to comment on this blog post.

            Kindly pray for the repose of Madiba’s soul

          • Charles Mostert

            You studied it, I lived it.

          • Charles Mostert

            In any case, lets leave this discussion as is.

          • markkrite

            You’re getting snarky, Charles; did Nelson Mandela support legalized murder of the unborn, i.e., abortion on demand, same sex marriage (an oxymoron), and was he at least a Marxist Socialist, or wasn’t he, and did he support all these abominations? A simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ will do, please don’t bloviate or obfuscate. Thanx and have a nice dat

  • Sygurd Jonfski

    “An irritable man who got cross when he couldn’t have his favorite brand of mineral water? A fusser who obsessively folded his daily newspapers just so, who got annoyed if things weren’t lined up in their precise order? An aloof man who nonetheless flirted with any pretty young woman he met?”

    These are not the real problems with Nelson Mandela. The real problems are that he was a terrorist who supported abortion, same-sex “marriage” and Communism, see http://www.lifesitenews.com/news/pro-life-leaders-urge-caution-while-pope-and-bishops-praise-controversial-n

    • MainlineP

      Slow day at Breitbart, so you showed up here with those of us with more nuanced views of history and the complexities of human nature and society. Shall we condemn our own founding fathers who kept humans as property, enshrined human bondage in our constitution, and practiced rebellion and (from their King’s point of view) terrorism against their lawful, if unjust, government in London? No, we celebrate them as patriots as we should. Life and history are more complex than bumper stickers and foamers on talk radio.

      • Sygurd Jonfski

        There is one word to describe your position – hypocrisy.

    • Sygurd Jonfski
    • axelbeingcivil

      Mandella was fairly socialist but not a communist. Also, having no troubles with abortion or same-sex marriage myself, I have no umbrage there.

      So, all in all, the point of contention really comes down to when you believe armed resistance is appropriate. Is it before or after a government you didn’t elect bulldozes your homes and relocates you out of cities because of your skin colour?

      • Sygurd Jonfski

        “Mandella [sic] was fairly socialist but not a communist.”

        Educate yourself:

        “While during his life, Mandela denied being part of the communist party despite his friendly interaction with communist world leaders, the African National Congress revealed today [Dec. 6, 2013] that Mandela was in fact a high-ranking member of the Communist Party.

        “Madiba was also a member of the South African Communist Party, where he served in the Central Committee,” said the ANC release.”

        See more at: http://www.lifesitenews.com/news/pro-life-leaders-urge-caution-while-pope-and-bishops-praise-controversial-n#sthash.fYUWnihU.dpuf

        • axelbeingcivil

          You might need to educate yourself, man. Mandela wasn’t a member of the SACP, not directly. He was, however, a founder of Umkhonto we Sizwe, which was an alliance between the ANC and SACP. Calling him a member is technically true but not the whole story, and calling him a Communist is something not actually reflected in his politics.

          Similarly, Mandela never actually participated in much of the resistance directly. Certainly, he planned to, but he was arrested in 1962, after the earliest bombing campaigns. The vast majority of fighting and the brutalities that occurred as a result did not occur until well after that.

          Also, how curious it is, if Mandela was the monster you say he is, that so many black Africans sided with the ANC. If they were truly interested in just murdering their fellows, why would so many defect to join them?

          The truth of it is, the ANC aren’t saints. They’ve got a history of blood on their hands, from rebelling against a government that violently oppressed them; one that declared them to have few to no rights, refused to allow them to elect their own government, and sought to force them onto what amounted to little better than the Native reserves forced upon Native Americans during American expansionism.

          You can’t really call Mandela a terrorist without, say, calling George Washington a terrorist or Thomas Jefferson. I don’t support the use of violence but committing to such a label is hardly defensible unless you call anyone who fights for or to defend individual liberty a terrorist.

          • Sygurd Jonfski

            Comparing the murderous terrorist tactics of the likes of Mandela with the deeds of George Washington is ludicrous and dishonest beyond words. You, sir, are a manipulative liar.

          • axelbeingcivil

            Well, for a start, Mandela never actually really participated in any of it but, if you want to, sure. Let’s compare, say, George Washington who, in the French-Indian War had his troops enact a scorched earth strategy for disobedient Natives, burning their fields and salting the ground and destroying their homes, with Nelson Mandela, who was imprisoned on not charges of actual violence but of recruiting people and of belonging to a banned political party.

            How about we compare the battles of Lexington and Concord to the responses of the South African people to the Apartheid government destroying their homes and denying them the ability to defend themselves?

            How about we compare the destruction of British government facilities, such as tax offices and post offices, with Umkhonto we Sizwe’s destruction of Apartheid government facilities?

            And that’s without getting into things like the conflict between loyalists and rebels at the local level.

            Really, it’s actually not an apt comparison; Mandela didn’t oppress native peoples or keep slaves, after all. Between the two of them, his hands are probably cleaner, morally speaking.

  • Anna

    Did you leave out of your article that Mandela spent 27 years unjustly in prison? It is shameful and beneath shallow that you would mention how he folded his newspaper, but omit that he didn’t harden his heart for 27 years against injustice and abusive imprisonment. Most people on the planet and throughout the history of humanity would not have such a great and sacred humanity to manage to forgive what this one great man forgave, and got others to follow his example. Your article does not do Nelson Mandela any justice even after his death.

    • Sygurd Jonfski

      “Did you leave out of your article that Mandela spent 27 years unjustly in prison?”

      Educate yourself, Anna:

      “[Mandela] had been fairly tried and convicted of complicity in many murders, and he confessed to participation in 156 acts of terror, crimes that would certainly have earned him the death penalty in a great many countries. Moreover, his confinement was more than comfortable by any standards. During his legendary twenty-seven years in prison, Mandela communicated freely with his followers, and somehow managed to accumulate a considerable fortune. He was continually offered release by the white Apartheid government, but on one condition: that he renounce violence in pursuit of political reform. That is something he consistently refused to do…

      Even a group as left-leaning as Amnesty International refused to grant Mandela political prisoner status because of the obviously violent character of his ideology and his actions.” http://www.crisismagazine.com/2013/nelson-mandela-a-candid-assessment

      • axelbeingcivil

        I’m afraid I have to inform you that a lot of what you state is a half-truth. Mandela was, indeed, denied prisoner of conscience status by AI, but because he advocated for violent responses to the Apartheid government. They still contributed a great deal to make sure he was not simply put on a show trial. Similarly, what he was charged with was “recruiting” people, “furthering Communism”, and seeking allies in foreign governments. The charges, leveled in, say, the US would be laughed out of court. Maybe not in the EU, though, due to seeking weapons.

        • Sygurd Jonfski

          You’re trying to push your nitpicking as “truth” but this is too ridiculously obvious. I’m afraid I have to inform you that you’re not fooling anybody.

          • axelbeingcivil

            Who am I trying to fool? What I said is easily verifiable. The records of the trial are available to the public, as is AIs response.

  • Anna

    Your article is a further travesty of justice. You can’t shame Nelson Mandela by withholding the hard and cruel facts of his life – that he spent 27 years unjustly imprisoned. You only bring shame on yourself. And, you’re a coward in addition to delete my comments.

    • Sygurd Jonfski

      See my comment above. You are completely ignorant of facts.

  • Anna

    Nelson Mandela did not harden his heart after enduring 27 years of unjust imprisonment. That he found it within himself to forgive AND lead a nation to follow his example is the most important fact about his life.

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