“He is too much of a saint”, Robert Mugabe remarked once on Nelson Mandela. Indeed, Nelson Mandela was nothing less than a saint for it was because of him that blacks could reclaim their respect and right to live with equality not only in South Africa but across the world. So far, so good but is not being “too much of a saint” injustice to the choices Mandela had to make within constraints as a human being?
We all face routine questions of life and we also falter but greatness lies in making tough choices despite inviting criticism for it. This is what Nelson Mandela was great at. In his lifetime, he faced the same constraints which we do as humans but his success lay in sticking to his principles despite facing criticism for it.
His friendship with Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was always an irritant to the west. Gaddafi was labelled as an international pariah for his funding of militant revolutions across the world by the west but to Mandela he remained a friend of South Africa who helped the country topple apartheid regime. At the time when western governments were backing the apartheid regime against liberation forces in South Africa, military training and assistance by Libya to ANC combatants proved much helpful in shattering the apartheid regime. Nelson Mandela paid a visit to Tripoli in 1990 after serving 27 years in jail and thanked Gaddafi for the assistance and he also condemned 1986 air raids by the United States on Libya. What held Mandela and Gaddafi together as friends was their undying belief in African nationalism and deep suspicion of imperialist forces. Gaddafi was also the last head of state that Mandela received on bilateral basis before retiring from public office as president. In a warm speech on the occasion, Mandela took note of the criticism of his friendship with Gaddafi and resolved to never leave Gaddafi alone because in Mandela’s view, those criticizing their bond were the same countries that backed racial apartheid regime in South Africa. Nelson Mandela’s association with Muammar Gaddafi might have been a matter of taint for his image but the brave heart continued to be friends with him and did not let former imperial powers dictate terms of association between two sovereign countries. His association with Gaddafi would come as a shock to many but Mandela could justify the reasons pretty well.
Mandela held Gandhi as a source of inspiration and is himself known as South African Gandhi. Nelson Mandela is hailed as father of South Africa while respect is extended to Gandhi by Africans as Grandfather of South Africa. There were uncanny resemblance in the liberation war that Mandela helmed in South Africa and Indian freedom struggle but Mandela brought his own touch to Gandhian values. He imbibed values like forgiveness and compassion from Gandhi in forgiving the whites and paving way for a reconciled South African society but his take on violence was different from Gandhi’s. In his autobiography, Mandela notes that to him violence was more of a strategy against the apartheid regime. In 1959, he also upheld violence as the “only weapon that would destroy apartheid”. It might came as a surprise that despite our holding Mandela and Gandhi in the same spirit when it comes to ideals of non-violence, Mandela chose pragmatism over idealism in his choice of violence. It would have been difficult to bring down apartheid regime in South Africa if Mandela would not have chosen to defeat racism militarily.
In order to appreciate the man he really was it is imperative to respect his choices. The tough ones he made, including keeping friendship with Gaddafi intact and choosing violence despite batting for peace.