On the Use of Mandela’s Legacy as an Argument

One Center for American Progress post, on the history of conservative anti-Mandela and anti-anti-apartheid positions, appears to assert that the U.S. should have adopted an idealist foreign policy toward apartheid South Africa, disregarding Cold War, power-based considerations and opposing the regime for its immoral domestic policies.  You could argue for this position on moral absolutist grounds, but the CAP poster instead appears to want to show that in hindsight, the realpolitikers have been proven wrong.  Everyone praises Mandela now, everyone knows he was a hero, and apartheid was evil, and the results prove that those favoring pressure on the apartheid regime were right.  Yet Mandela only came to power once the Cold War was over; it’s easy to say that promotion of morality should take priority over geopolitical considerations once geopolitical considerations have ceased to exist.  These results don’t really say anything about what good policy was in 1985.*

A different CAP post, on the other hand, quotes Mandela defending his friendship with Castro’s Cuba and Gaddafi’s Libya, on realist grounds: “’One of the mistakes the Western world makes is to think that their enemies should be our enemies…We have our own struggle.’  He added that those leaders ‘are placing resources at our disposal to win the struggle.’”  Well, good.  You have your struggle, good luck with that.  You want to be friends with Castro, and not ask too many questions about his political prisons, well hey, we understand, business is business.  But of course, Mandela was pretty sure his enemies should be our enemies.

The first CAP post, the one about how conservatives were wrong about Mandela, uses Mandela’s saintly status to show that he should have been uncontroversial all along.  The other post, the one that notes his friendship with Cuba and Libya, is very different:

“In the desire to celebrate Nelson Mandela’s life — an iconic figure who triumphed over South Africa’s brutal apartheid regime — it’s tempting to homogenize his views into something everyone can support. This is not, however, an accurate representation of the man.

As one commentator put it shortly after the announcement of the freedom fighter’s death, “Mandela will never, ever be your minstrel. Over the next few days you will try so, so hard to make him something he was not, and you will fail. You will try to smooth him, to sandblast him, to take away his Malcolm X. You will try to hide his anger from view.”

So when we look back on people who criticized Mandela, because of his “Malcom X” side, we can point to his current reputation as someone “everyone can support,” an iconic opponent of apartheid and nothing else.  But when we want to shock the bourgeois, we can point to the shocking positions this sainted figure held.

If Mandela’s legacy were in question, CAP would have every incentive to downplay his extreme side, and dismiss concern about it as paranoia- as it does in pointing retrospectively to conservative criticism.  Much of the material in the “Mandela as Malcom X” post could be used to criticize his moral judgment, if such a thing were at all considered a matter of legitimate question. 

For instance, according to the Malcom X post, Mandela claimed that Bush wanted “to plunge the world into a holocaust” by going to war in Iraq.  It is highly unlikely that this was Bush’s goal, however.  “Mandela even speculated that then-Secretary-General Kofi Annan was being undermined in the process because he was black.  ‘They never did that when secretary generals were white,’ he said.”  This just isn’t sensible analysis.  When a leader wants to go to war, he is going to try to go around or through those trying to get in his way.  I guess Kofi Annan in some symbolic sense represented the portion of the international community that Bush was defying, but his more meaningful defiance was of the U.N. Security Council.

Mandela claimed that poverty and inequality “rank alongside slavery and apartheid as social evils.”  I don’t know what a social evil is, but what kind of evil is poverty, and what kind of evil is slavery?  They aren’t the same kind of thing at all.  Poverty might bring suffering, a kind of physical evil.  Slavery and apartheid are evil actions that people do to one another, a moral evil.  Let’s not conflate the two.  If slavery or apartheid is just another physical reality, like poverty, one might do something about it through economic progress or improving knowledge of how to deal with it, but there is no urgent moral obligation to bring it to an end; it becomes a matter of degree and social trade-offs.  The Southerners’ argument, that their system was no worse morally than Northern low-wage, factory work, becomes valid if, as Mandela said, “while poverty persists, there is no true freedom.”  For that matter, any persistent poverty in South Africa would undermine Mandela’s status as a liberator.

* Moreover, a pro-South Africa President and an anti-apartheid Congress gave us the always invaluable good cop-bad cop dynamic.  If you think near-total isolation helps improve a country’s behavior, I point you to North Korea.


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