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Nelson Mandela at 94: saint or sell-out? (Part I)

“Thank God for lettin’ me live long enough to see this day!”

-- Willie Lee Dyer, February 11, 1990

Those were the words of my mother as we watched Nelson Mandela's televised release from 27½ years of imprisonment in the South African gulag. We marveled at the pictures of Nelson and Winnie Mandela as they walked from the prison gates. They strode hand-in-hand with their right fists raised in “Black Power” salute to the smiling, cheering, excited crowds. The TV talking heads, politicians, preachers, political and social activists, and media mavens droned on and on about what it all meant.

And, as the TV punditocracy ran out of superlatives, my mother, who had only a 10th-grade education, and whom I had never heard mention anything “African” before, cut through all the rhetoric, bombast and hoopla. She at once reduced and then raised Mandela's life and legacy into one essential fact: “Mandela,” she said, was “just the latest in a long, long line of freedom fighters.” She went on, displaying a depth and grasp of history that was...well...astounding:

Mandela,” she concluded, “stands on the shoulders of and follows the road carved out by Nat Turner, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Booker T. Washington, George Washington Carver, Ida B. Wells, Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Harold Washington.”

And this is the picture of Nelson Mandela which has been universally embraced and burnished since even before his release from prison. It is the view that for decades inspired individuals, organizations, and whole nations to condemn, protest against, boycott, “divest” from, and sanction the 500-year-old white racist settler regime of South Africa.

Later, for a grad school political theory seminar, I wrote a review of Mandela's seminal memoir, Long Walk To Freedom. That tome chronicled both his personal and his country's epic and ultimately victorious struggle against South Africa's version of legalized white supremacy, racism and segregation, apartheid. My review followed mother's historical line of reasoning and compared then-President Mandela to each of the legendary leaders she had mentioned that bright morning in 1990. Mother died almost exactly one year later.

At the age of 75, in 1994, Nelson Mandela was elected as South Africa’s first black president. His election put a resounding exclamation point upon the end of the apartheid era, and ushered in a new, hard fought, and hoped for dispensation of democracy, “truth and reconciliation.” Or so what ended up being an “elite transition” was billed. Nelson Mandela did not stand for re-election in 1998 and retired in 1999.

In the 18 years since he left office, and the 22 years since the defeat of apartheid, what may we say of his legacy?

An uncharacteristically scathing round of critique and criticism has emerged recently over just exactly how, why, and under what conditions Mandela was released from prison; what concessions and compromises were made at that time; and why the socio-economic conditions for the vast majority of black South Africans have not materially improved (and, in fact, have deteriorated even further) since his release from incarceration and the end of his presidency.

His most high-profile and vocal critic has been none other than his erstwhile wife, the selfsame Winnie Mandela who took that triumphant walk from prison with him in 1990. Indeed, in a London Mail article in 2010, she flatly accused him of “betraying South Africa’s black population.” She said that he had done nothing to help the poor and should not have accepted the Nobel Peace Prize with his former jailer and South Africa’s last white president, F.W. de Klerk. Then 75 herself, Winnie Mandela charged that Nelson Mandela had become a “corporate foundation,” who is “wheeled out” only to raise funds for the African National Congress (ANC), which he once presided over as its president.

Of course, Winnie Mandela’s criticisms have been dismissed by many as the grumblings of a disgruntled and estranged ex-wife, who was quite publicly known to have been unfaithful to her husband during the entire almost 28-year period of his imprisonment. Also, she was convicted of kidnapping and murder in 1991 (for a three-year-old crime), just a year after Nelson’s release. She has also been in the dock numerous times for various and sundry fraudulent financial schemes in 2002. Her six-year murder/kidnapping sentence was suspended and she did no significant time in jail herself. Nelson Mandela finally divorced her as an "embarrasment" for all that he was and stood for.

Still, she remains unrelenting in her condemnation of her former husband. “Mandela let us down,” she has said. “He agreed to a bad deal for the blacks. Economically we are still on the outside. The economy is very much ‘white’.” Putting Winnie’s blatant hypocrisy aside for the moment (she has not experienced “poverty” in a very long time), she is “very much” right about South Africa’s economy.

Although regarded as a “man of peace,” between his release and election to the presidency, Mandela refused to intervene or condemn the violence and atrocities committed by the ANC against rival black organizations, factions, and political parties, particularly the Inkatha Freedom Party. According to a March 13, 2010 Global Post article, the ANC’s “nonchalant use of increasing violence to obtain political concessions from de Klerk’s government must be partly laid at Mandela’s door.”

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(See Part II)