by Rod D. Martin
December 9, 2013

I did not write about Nelson Mandela’s passing — I was otherwise engaged at the time and simply didn’t have bandwidth to address it — but a friend asked a question about it on Facebook and, when I did have some time, I felt obliged to answer.

The question was very simple:  Was Mandela a hero?

This is a question that some conservatives have a great deal of trouble with, and that some simply answer no.  They have their reasons, and they’re good reasons.  I shared most of them in the 1980s when all we knew about Nelson Mandela was what he’d said before his long imprisonment and what his party, the ANC, was doing at the time.  None of us agreed with apartheid, but none of us wanted the ANC to turn South Africa into Zimbabwe, or worse, a Soviet satellite.  So opinions were formed and continue to be held which, perhaps, do not reflect subsequent events.

Those events are titanic.  And hence my answer, which follows, to the question “was Mandela a hero?”


Yes.  Now that requires some caveats, and will greatly annoy some of my conservative friends.  But yes, and I’ll explain why.

Nelson Mandela started as a communist thug, which was the main reason he got thrown in jail for most of his life.  The ANC was then and is now corrupt through-and-through, with no one exemplifying that corruption more than Nelson’s then-wife Winnie (you may look up her “exploits” on your own).  And had apartheid ended before the fall of the Soviet Union, the ANC would have turned it into a Soviet client state, with vast and ugly ramifications for the West.  I can go into that at more length later if you wish, but it would have been the biggest geopolitical disaster since the fall of China.

But that’s the ANC.  Mandela became a very different man in prison.  And the Soviet Union did fall.  And so Mandela re-entered a world where neither he nor his party had the option of turning to Moscow, which gave Mandela the opportunity to become something vastly more than he would have been in 1964.

He became a hero.  And he became a hero primarily because of one decision:  the choice to seek reconciliation instead of vengeance.  Some will point out that this has been implemented (ahem) imperfectly, and they are correct, but they are also missing the point.  South Africa could have been a bloodbath.  It could have also been Zimbabwe.

Instead, one man — Nelson Mandela — decided to create the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, whereby anyone could receive a pardon for all their acts under the apartheid regime simply by coming and, on the record, telling all of the truth they knew.  And believe me when I tell you that there were more atrocities among the majority than the minority:  various black organizations fought each other as much or more than they fought the whites, and tended to reserve their greatest fury for each other.  So there was a lot of sin to go around, and in this great coming together which Mandela engineered, there genuinely came a sense that all of that was past, and needed to be left in the past.

Now I certainly don’t share the politics of the ANC even now, and I’m not saying that I agree with all their (or all of Mandela’s) decisions. Some would point to his legalization of abortion, a true tragedy.  Others would note other things, such as his support for Castro.  They are not wrong to do so.

Yet the point remains that somehow, miraculously, Nelson Mandela cast off his very legitimate desire for revenge, his ideological grudges, and the bloodthirst of many in his own camp, and then far beyond that, got nearly everyone else to do the same.  There are precious few examples of that in human history.  And for that, we should recognize him as a towering figure.  Flawed?  Yes, but who isn’t?  Indeed, it is his flaws which highlight just how very great he became.