Upon the death of Nelson Mandela, National Review noted that he had unmatched moral authority among world leaders, a view with which I agree, and I think one would be hard pressed to name a 20th century leader more revered in his time. In watching and listening to the coverage of his life in the week after his death, I was struck by a number of points.
First, it’s important to acknowledge that he was a Marxist revolutionary who accepted significant assistance and support from the Soviet Union, Qaddafi, Castro, Arafat, et al, some of the worst players in the world and he could have easily become a Lenin-type revolutionary. Second, it’s important to remember the Cold War context within which the U. S. was forced to consider policies such as sanctions on the apartheid government of South Africa, which often put America at odds with world opinion and our own concept of human and civil rights, albeit in our interest in the various proxy wars with the Soviet Union.
Mandela is often compared to Martin Luther King, Jr., but MLK had the benefit of a foundation in the American Declaration of Independence and an appeal to the founding principles of America and related racial guilt. Mandela had no such grounding beyond the natural law. His courage was manifest in fidelity to the rule of law, the foundation of which ironically was established by the English-speaking regime dominant in the oppressive state he opposed. His campaign was not for entitlement or reparations, but for equal treatment under the law and he rejected bitterness, revenge, and recrimination.
Two of his most important decisions as President of South Africa after his release from prison were first, to call for and establish a truth and reconciliation commission, which helped to provide closure and healing, and second, his decision to step down as President after one term, which put him in the exceptional class with George Washington, because he could have easily become just another tinhorn dictator, and South Africa would then have gone the way of Zimbabwe and other tyrannical post-colonial African dictatorships.
It’s true that he made selective use of his moral authority in support of human rights and he was overboard in his praise of the Castro and Qaddafi regimes and his criticism of American human rights violations. But on balance, he is deserving of the praise and adulation he has received and his revered place in history.