Say what you like about Nelson Mandela, but he is not a man known
to bear a grudge or lose his temper easily. Having waited 27 years for
his freedom, he emerged from jail to preach peace and reconciliation
to a nation scarred by racism. When he finally made the transition
from the world's most famous prisoner to the world's most respected
statesman, he invited his former jailer to the inauguration.
So when he criticizes US foreign policy in terms every bit as harsh
as those he used to condemn apartheid, you know something is up. In
the past few weeks, he has issued a "strong condemnation" of
the US's attitude towards Iraq, lambasted vice-president Dick Cheney
for being a "dinosaur" and accused the US of being "a
threat to world peace".
Coming from other quarters, such criticisms would have been
dismissed by both the White House and Downing Street as the words of
appeasement, anti-Americanism or leftwing extremism. But Mandela is
not just anyone. Towering like a moral colossus over the late 20th
century, his voice carries an ethical weight like no other. He rode to
power on a global wave of goodwill, left office when his five years
were up and settled down to a life of elder statesmanship. So the
belligerent tone he has adopted of late suggests one of two things;
either that some thing is very wrong with the world, or that something
is very wrong with Mandela.
What Mandela believes is wrong with the world is not difficult to
fathom. He is annoyed at how the US is exploiting its overwhelming
military might. Earlier this month, after President Bush would not
take his calls, he spoke to secretary of state Colin Powell and then
the president's father, asking the latter to discourage his son from
"What right has Bush to say that Iraq's offer is not
genuine?" he asked on Monday. "We must condemn that very
strongly. No country, however strong, is entitled to comment adversely
in the way the US has done. They think they're the only power in the
world. They're not and they're following a dangerous policy. One
country wants to bully the world."
Having supported the bombing of Afghanistan, he cannot be dismissed
as a peacenik. But his assessment of the current phase of Bush's war
on terror is as damning as anything coming out of the Arab world.
"If you look at these matters, you will come to the conclusion
that the attitude of the United States of America is a threat to world
And then there is the dreaded "r" word. Accusations of
discrimination do not fall often or easily from Mandela's lips, but
when they do, the world is forced to sit up and listen. So far, he has
fallen short of accusing the west of racism in its dealings with the
developing world, but he has implied sympathy with those who do.
"When there were white secretary generals, you didn't find this
question of the US and Britain going out of the UN. But now that
you've had black secretary generals, such as Boutros Boutros Ghali and
Kofi Annan, they do not respect the UN. This is not my view, but that
is what is being said by many people."
Most surprising in these broadsides has been his determination to
point out particular individuals for blame. As a seasoned political
hand, Mandela has previously eschewed personal invective but has
clearly made an exception when it comes to Cheney. In 1986, Cheney
voted against a resolution calling for his release because of his
alleged support for "terrorism". Mandela insists that he is
not motivated by pique. "Quite clearly we are dealing with an
arch-conservative in Dick Cheney... my impression of the president is
that this is a man with whom you can do business. But it is the men
around him who are dinosaurs, who do not want him to belong to the
In fact, behind the scenes, the White House is attempting to
portray Mandela, now 84, as something of a dinosaur himself - the
former leader of an African country, embittered by the impotence that
comes with retirement and old age. It is a charge they have found
difficult to make stick. Mandela has never been particularly
encumbered by delusions of grandeur. When asked whether he would be
prepared to mediate in the current dispute, he replied. "If I am
asked by credible organisations to mediate, I will consider that very
seriously. But a situation of this nature does not need an individual,
it needs an organisation like the UN to mediate. A man who has lost
power and influence can never be a suitable mediator."
In truth, since leaving office he has shown consummate diplomatic
skill. In 1999, he persuaded Libyan leader Colonel Gadafy to hand over
the two alleged intelligence agents indicted in the 1988 Lockerbie
bombing. He was touted as a possible mediator in the Middle East - a
suggestion quashed by the Israeli government, which was apartheid's
chief arms supplier.
Last year he was personally involved in the arrangement -
sanctioned by the UN - to send South African troops to Burundi as a
confidence-building measure in a bid to forestall a Rwandan-style
genocide. That does not mean he always gets it right. He advocated a
softly-softly diplomatic approach towards the Nigerian regime when Ken
Saro-Wiwa was on death row. Saro-Wiwa was murdered and Abacha's regime
remained intact. Nor does it mean that he is above criticism.
Arguably, he could have done more to redistribute wealth during his
term in office in South Africa, and he maintained strong diplomatic
relations with some oppressive regimes, such as Indonesia. In July, a
representative of those killed in the Lockerbie disaster described
Mandela's call for the bomber to be transferred to a muslim country as
"outrageous". But it does mean that he is above the
disparagement and disdain usually shown to leaders of the developing
world that the west find awkward.
But if there is something wrong with Mandela it is chiefly that for
the past decade he has been thoroughly and wilfully misunderstood. He
has been portrayed as a kindly old gent who only wanted black and
white people to get on, rather than a determined political activist
who wished to redress the power imbalance between the races under
democratic rule. In the years following his release, the west wilfully
mistook his push for peace and reconciliation not as the vital first
steps to building a consensus that could in turn build a battered
nation but as a desire to both forgive and forget.
When he displayed a lack of personal malice, they saw an abundance
of political meekness. There is an implicit racism in this that goes
beyond Mandela to the way in which the west would like black leaders
to behave. After slavery and colonialism, comes the desire to draw a
line under the past and a veil over its legacy. So long as they are
preaching non-violence in the face of aggression, or racial unity
where there has been division, then everyone is happy. But as soon as
they step out of that comfort zone, the descent from saint to sinner
is a rapid one. The price for a black leader's entry to the
international statesman's hall of fame is not just the sum of their
good works but either death or half of their adult life behind bars.
In order to be deserving of accolades, history must first be
rewritten to deprive them of their militancy. Take Martin Luther King,
canonised after his death by the liberal establishment but vilified in
his last years for making a stand against America's role in Vietnam.
One of his aides, Andrew Young, recalled: "This man who had been
respected worldwide as a Nobel Prize winner suddenly applied his
non-violence ethic and practice to the realm of foreign policy. And
no, people said, it's all right for black people to be non-violent
when they're dealing with white people, but white people don't need to
be non-violent when they're dealing with brown people."
So it was for Mandela when he came to Britain in 1990, after
telling reporters in Dublin that the British government should talk to
the IRA, presaging developments that took place a few years later. The
then leader of the Labour party, Neil Kinnock, called the remarks
"extremely ill-advised"; Tory MP Teddy Taylor said the
comments made it "difficult for anyone with sympathy for the ANC
and Mandela to take him seriously."
He made similar waves in the US when he refused to condemn Yasser
Arafat, Colonel Gadafy and Fidel Castro. Setting great stock by the
loyalty shown to both him and his organization during the dog days of
apartheid, he has consistently maintained that he would stick by those
who stuck by black South Africa. It was wrong, he told Americans, to
suggest that "our enemies are your enemies... We are a liberation
movement and they support our struggle to the hilt."
This, more than anything, provides the US and Britain with their
biggest problem. They point to pictures of him embracing Gaddafi or
transcripts of his support for Castro as evidence that his judgment
has become flawed over the years. But what they regard as his weakness
is in fact his strength. He may have forgiven, but he has not
forgotten. His recent criticisms of America stretch back over 20 years
to its "unqualified support of the Shah of Iran [which] lead
directly to the Islamic revolution of 1979".
The trouble is not that, when it comes to his public
pronouncements, Mandela is acting out of character. But that, when it
comes to global opinion, the US and Britain are increasingly out of
Additional reporting by Shirley Brooks.