Stephen McGinty: Nelson Mandela - political giant

A statue of Nelson Mandela is surrounded by flowers outside of the South African Embassy in Washington. Picture: Reuters
A statue of Nelson Mandela is surrounded by flowers outside of the South African Embassy in Washington. Picture: Reuters
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Nelson Mandela has won an honoured seat up there with Lincoln, Churchill and Gandhi in the who’s who of our political giants, reflects Stephen McGinty

WHEN Abraham Lincoln died in the first floor bedroom of William Peterson’s boarding house, the victim of an assassin’s bullet, the Secretary of State for War, Edwin M. Stanton stood back and said: “Now he belongs to the ages.” Or, at least, that is what many historians now believe were the words uttered in that crowded, grief-stricken room in 1865. Others disagree and argue that Stanton, a devout Christian, actually said: “Now he belongs to the angels.” So which is it to be? I would argue that angels are charitable by nature and would refuse no poor soul that came their way. By comparison, the Goddess Cleo, daughter of Zeus, the muse of history and guardian of the Ages has a far higher standard and enforces a stricter door policy.

Abraham Lincoln undoubtedly belongs to “the ages”, and when Barack Obama, upon hearing the news of the death of Nelson Mandela on Thursday evening, said “He no longer belongs to us; he belongs to the ages” he was elevating, to the height of America’s greatest President, the historical plinth on which the former president of South Africa will now stand.

For the first black American president, and a diligent student of American history, it is an obvious comparison to make. Abraham Lincoln forever freed the blacks of the southern states from the bondage of slavery and fought a bloody war to maintain the United States of America; Nelson Mandela forever freed the blacks of South Africa from a racist totalitarian state then maintained the unity of the country by avoiding a bloody civil war, which many considered inevitable. Others in America will make comparisons to the Rev Martin Luther King, and while they both had an eye for the ladies, and argued for greater rights, King was an orator of soaring poetry, while Mandela was, for the most part, an unimpressive speaker whose words read better on the page, than heard in person.

At the end of his trial for violent revolution and speaking in the shadow of the gallows, Mandela famously said: “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for, and to see realised. But, by Lord, if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” As prose, it was good, but not great.

Yet there is no doubt that Nelson Mandela belongs in the pantheon of political giants. The question is: by whom should he stand? I would argue that his achievements should not be corralled into a township populated only by fellow campaigners against the scourge of racism. In fact, I would place him between a man who could quite easily be described as a racist, as was his times, and another who initially believed himself to be above the black man. The fact that both men, like Mandela, had formative experiences in South Africa, adds an ironic twist, as does the fact that one would go on to describe the other as a “seditious middle Temple… fakir.”

Winston Churchill made his name in South Africa to which he despatched himself as Britain’s most highly-paid war correspondent, earning £250 a month for The Morning Post, and covering the Second Boer War. He escaped from a prisoner of war camp and went on the run for three weeks, a hunted fugitive. Mandela was also a fugitive or the “Black Pimpernel” as he was known while planning a bombing campaign in the late 1950s. Churchill successfully escaped and became a national hero back in Britain. Mandela was arrested while disguised as a white man’s chauffeur. Police thought it suspicious that the white man was driving, while his black “chauffeur” lounged in the passenger seat.

Was Nelson Mandela the “Winston Churchill of South Africa”? Well, both believed in hanging stoically on to life – Churchill lasted to 90, Mandela to 95 – and both arguably saved their country in its hour of greatest need. For Britain, this was in May, 1940, in the aftermath of Dunkirk when the Cabinet considered agreeing terms of surrender with Adolf Hitler and his triumphant German army then goose-stepping across France. Churchill said he would rather see Britain obliterated, with the last Englishman choking on his blood in the fight for freedom, and as a consequence, Britain remained free and, in time, Europe was liberated. For South Africa, this was between February, 1990 and September, 1992 when Mandela, now freed after 27 years of imprisonment, walked a knife edge with civil war on either side and negotiated a democratic future for his country.

Today people forget, but even after Mandela’s release a democratic destiny was not guaranteed, especially not after Zulus killed 38 people in Boipatong in June 1992, and government troops opened fire on an ANC march in September, killing 28 and wounding 200. The fact that South Africa is the democratic nation it is today, and not the Balkans, binding its wounds after a long and bitter civil war, is down to one man: Nelson Mandela.

He was comfortable with compromise and realised during his long imprisonment on Robben Island that the Afrikaners were acting out of fear of what they imagined would happen to them if the blacks, 80 per cent of the population, ever got the whip hand. The key to reconciliation between the two races was for the ANC to drop their goal of a revolution which only he could persuade them to do.

In his determination, Mandela was similar to another political leader who endured the indignity of being thrown off a South African bus for failing to give up his seat for a passenger with paler skin. Mohandas Gandhi spent 21 years in the country, between 1893 and 1914, before eventually returning to India, where he set about freeing the nation from British rule by non-violent protest. Like Mandela, Gandhi was a lawyer and as house counsel for the Muslim Indian Traders in Pretoria, he would fight unsuccessfully a bill to stop Indians from having the vote. When he first arrived Gandhi believed Indians were above the indigenous blacks but below whites, whom he believed “should be the predominant race” in the country, but over time his belief grew in universal racial equality. In fact, it was in South Africa that Gandhi was first called “Mohatma” or “venerable” or “high souled”. Yet even Gandhi couldn’t prevent the murderous religious violence that tore across India with independence in 1947 and the partition of the country with the creation of Muslim Pakistan, though he desperately tried by threatening to “fast unto death”.

The asceticism of Gandhi, in his loin-cloth and simple sleeping mat, is mirrored in the stoicism of Mandela. The stature of the man is largely built on his endurance of 27 years of imprisonment, of the fact that upon arrival on Robben Island, after a rough sea crossing during which the guards urinated down the air vents on to him and his fellow prisoners, Mandela was told by a guard: “This is the island, here you will die.” (Mandela told him to ‘f*** off’.) Yet he emerged from years breaking rocks into gravel and toiling in a lime quarry not with a heart calcified by hatred but one open, if not to love, but acceptance.

Yet as well as Lincoln and Luther King, Churchill and Gandhi, there is one other historical figure with which Mandela could comfortably stand, and that is Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, a Roman general largely forgotten but a shining example of a man who put one’s nation before oneself. In the 5th century BC, Cincinnatus was banished to a farm, a figure of derision on account of the sins of his son, but when Rome came under attack from massed armies, the senators begged him to rule, investing him with all the powers of a dictator. He was called upon to save the nation, but when the enemy had been vanquished, he did something unique, he handed back the reins of power and returned to the plough and the life of a simple farmer. After five years as president of South Africa, Mandela didn’t do as so many African leaders have done and find ways to stay in power, instead, he handed back the reins of power and retired.

The death of Nelson Mandela has been a sad end to a deeply sad week for citizens of Glasgow, but at least we can be comforted by the fact that as a city we were the first in the world to recognise the civic force for good that was Nelson Mandela, who, for those who are religious, now belongs to both the angels and the ages.


• Live blog: reaction to Nelson Mandela’s death

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Obituary: Nelson Mandela, former South African president

Jim Murphy on Nelson Mandela’s global influence

Glasgow at Mandela’s side on road to freedom