Nelson Mandela: Failed Marxist Revolutionary

“The bulk of his adult life, Nelson Mandela was a failed Marxist revolutionary and leftist icon, the Che Guevara of Africa.” The Wall Street Journal

REVIEW & OUTLOOK

Nelson Mandela

A would-be Lenin who became Africa’s Vaclav Havel.

The Wall Street Journal, December 6, 2013, p. A 18 

The bulk of his adult life, Nelson Mandela was a failed Marxist revolutionary and leftist icon, the Che Guevara of Africa. Then in his seventies he had the chance to govern. He chose national reconciliation over reprisal, and he thus made himself an historic and all too rare example of a wise revolutionary leader.

Mandela, who died Thursday at age 95, had a patrician upbringing and a Methodist education. But his coming of age coincided with the rise of apartheid. Winning whites-only elections in 1948, the National Party lavished its Afrikaner base of European descendants with state jobs and privileges. Black, mixed-race and Indian South Africans were disfranchised.

Trained as a lawyer, Mandela was drawn to the African National Congress, which was founded by professional, educated blacks in 1912. He was not a born communist, but as he rose in its ranks the ANC moved toward Marxism and an alliance with the Soviets. Mandela kept portraits of Lenin and Stalin above his desk at home. Frustrated with the ANC’s ineffective peaceful resistance, he embraced armed struggle in the early 1960s and trained to become a guerrilla leader. He was arrested for plotting sabotage.

His 1964 trial gave Mandela a platform. In his famous closing argument, he said: “I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But, if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

This speech was the last the world saw of him for 26 years. He started his life sentence at Robben Island prison near Cape Town a would-be Lenin. He walked out of jail on February 11, 1990—at age 71—an African Havel.

Age mellowed him. Times changed. The apartheid leadership had opened secret talks with the ANC in the mid-1980s. While still in prison, Mandela became “president in training” under F.W. de Klerk, the last apartheid leader. In early 1990, Mr. de Klerk lifted the ban on the ANC.

Mandela ditched the ANC’s Marxism and reached out to business. Somehow—another miracle—the illiberal ANC and the illiberal National Party together negotiated a liberal new constitution with strong protections for minorities and an independent judiciary. “You do not compromise with a friend,” Mandela often said, “you compromise with an enemy.”

He won the country’s first free presidential elections in 1994 and worked to unite a scarred and anxious nation. He opened up the economy to the world, and a black middle class came to life. After a single term, he voluntarily left power at the height of his popularity. Most African rulers didn’t do that, but Mandela said, “I don’t want a country like ours to be led by an octogenarian. I must step down while there are one or two people who admire me.”

In another unusual gesture, he later admitted and apologized for his shortcomings. He knew he had failed to recognize and fight the spread of AIDS, which by the end of his term was killing millions of his countrymen. Modern South Africa’s other chronic ills—awful schools and rampant crime—took root in Mandela’s time as well.

He had also turned a blind eye to corruption in the ANC and failed to foresee the corrosiveness of one-party rule. He stood by his friend Moammar Gadhafi, saying the Libyan dictator had stood by the ANC. He had a prickly relationship with Mr. de Klerk, the rare mortal who didn’t fawn over him.

Mandela became the biggest of African men by refusing to act like a typical African “Big Man.” He transcended his party’s history of Marxism, tribalism and violence. The continent and world were fortunate to have him.

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