From the headlines alone, one can reasonably surmise that Nelson Mandela, the freedom fighter and former South African president who died on Thursday at age 95, was perhaps the most universally beloved and revered public figure on planet Earth.
From the moment word came that Mandela’s long-anticipated demise had passed, the adoring tributes poured in from every corner of the globe, each one more fervent and heartfelt than the last.
The cumulative impression of such remembrances is that, through his lifelong mission to effect justice and equality within his home country and without, Mandela was—as Attorney General Edward Bates said of Abraham Lincoln—very near being a perfect man.
How perfect was he? How much above reproach was the saint of South Africa while he was alive?
Enough to be on the United States’ terror watch list until he was 90 years old.
Yup. As some will remember and most would prefer to forget, Mandela, as a member of the African National Congress, was officially designated a persona non grata by the American government for a significant chunk of the late 20th century, particularly during the final years of the Cold War, when the anti-apartheid movement was often seen as a wing of international communism.
In 1986, the ANC was said by President Ronald Reagan to have engaged in a campaign of “calculated terror,” which included “the mining of roads, the bombings of public places, designed to bring about further repression.”
That same year, the U.S. Congress introduced the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act, which included a call for Mandela to be released from prison, where he had been residing for the past 23 years. While the bill ultimately passed, it was initially vetoed by President Reagan and opposed by 83 members of the House of Representatives, including future Vice President Dick Cheney, who as recently as 2000 maintained that his vote was correct.
While few officials seriously considered Mandela himself to be a threat to the United States or anywhere else in later years, in 2008 the State Department was nonetheless handed the embarrassment of having to formally remove Mandela’s name from its terror watch list, shortly after it was brought to the nation’s attention that it was still there.
The State Department characterized the whole episode as a “bureaucratic snafu,” as perhaps it was. But it served (and still serves) to underline an essential truth about Mandela’s complexity—namely, that Mandela was, in fact, a man of complexity.
As we observe the passing of any significant public figure, it should be our solemn duty to treat that person as if he or she existed in all three dimensions. We must recognize that even our most esteemed and exceptional fellow humans are human nonetheless, and thus we should resist the urge to immediately and reflexively turn them into superheroes who transcended the flaws and contradictions to which the rest of us are vulnerable.
We owe this acknowledgement to ourselves and to history because to do otherwise would be dishonest and, more importantly, boring.
How very regrettable it would be if, decades and centuries from now, Nelson Mandela were remembered simply as a man who dropped from the sky, flashed his dazzling smile and magically made apartheid disappear.
First, it would rob Mandela of his identity as a fully-formed individual—a man whose life was so spectacularly interesting and improbable that to omit everything but the bottom line would be to omit all the relevant context as well. If you know what a man accomplished but not how he accomplished it, you know nothing at all.
Second, as illustrated above, it would exonerate the United States of a foreign policy that, like the actions of Mandela himself, were not always as morally clear-cut as our leaders would have us believe.
In effect, it would reduce all of history to black and white, preventing us from learning anything useful from it and making us far more prone to repeating its gravest mistakes.
An old adage says that history is a tragedy, not a morality tale. Life itself is messy, and history is nothing more than the record of everyone’s lives. Accordingly, to discuss Mandela’s faults and controversies, rather than just his unqualified triumphs, is not to take him down. It is to take him seriously.
If he was truly a great man—no one has yet made a persuasive argument to the contrary—his reputation will withstand any criticism brought upon it.
The measure of a man’s greatness is not whether he ever did anything wrong. Rather, it’s his effect on the world from when he did something right.