Mandela’s Legacy: Hard to Separate Man From Myth


The subject was Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. There were suggestions he might seek asylum in South Africa. Would he be prevented from entering the country?

“No, we will not ban anybody,” President Nelson Mandela told reporters here last month. “What we condemn are his actions.”

Mandela’s statement sent journalists scurrying. “Milosevic Is Welcome in South Africa,” screamed the headlines.

Later, Mandela complained that the media had “gravely distorted” his remarks. What Mandela said, a spokesman insisted, was that there were no legal grounds for keeping the Serbian leader out.


Anyone who watched the exchange on TV knew better. But as with other awkward moments in Mandela’s presidency, the matter was politely dropped.

Mandela’s presidential term comes to a close today with lavish, $8-million festivities at the Union Buildings in Pretoria. Delegations from more than 100 countries, including a U.S. contingent to be headed by Atty. Gen. Janet Reno, will be on hand to witness his retirement and the swearing-in of his successor, Thabo Mbeki.

Accolades have been pouring in from around the world. There is probably no living statesman who enjoys greater prestige, moral authority or international affection; with a rare universal quality, he has managed to win the hearts of the noble and ignoble alike. The South African gold market even believes that Mandela can revive its sinking fortunes with a new companion coin to the Krugerrand--to be known as the Mandelarand.

But for all his undisputed greatness--from his willingness to die for his anti-apartheid convictions to his generosity of heart after prevailing over his white oppressors--Mandela’s five-year tenure as president was a mixed bag of things gone right and wrong.


Even as a living legend, Mandela the president performed in large measure like any other imperfect mortal, maybe even worse, according to some assessments. The only difference: Very few people will publicly say so.

“The world has so few heroes that we cannot really bring ourselves to see that heroes really only exist in fantasy and literature,” said political scientist Robert Schrire of the University of Cape Town. “Even great leaders have flaws. In many ways, Mandela is a great leader, but he isn’t really even 10% of the myth.”

Mandela has said that the man and the myth are not one and the same, but his insistence goes mostly unheeded because it is perceived as gracious self-effacement--something that only makes him more endearing. Time magazine, which ranked Mandela among the top figures of the century, bade him a hero’s farewell last week, saying, “If he weren’t so modest, [he] could take pride in a distinguished career.”

U.S. officials are among those who have been reluctant to debunk Mandela’s magic, having mostly bitten their tongues over the past few years as he embraced some of the world’s biggest dictators--from Col. Moammar Kadafi of Libya to Saddam Hussein of Iraq to Fidel Castro of Cuba--in the name of solidarity with victims of colonialism and out of loyalty to supporters of the anti-apartheid struggle.

Mandela’s recent softness on Milosevic--the Serbian leader only lost his invitation to today’s festivities after he was indicted on war crimes charges--is just the latest of his in-your-face pronouncements to be quietly set aside by Washington.

“If Mandela were anyone else, he would have been attacked much more on foreign policy,” said Wilmot James, the former director of the Institute for Democracy in South Africa. “No one else could do what he has done and get away with it.”

Last year, Brian Walden, a political commentator and onetime member of the British Parliament, discovered how lonely it can be expressing an unflattering view of the South African president.

Walden was publicly ridiculed and said to have “lost his marbles” after he judged Mandela’s record as one of incompetence during a BBC documentary on great political figures. Walden concluded that Mandela falls short of such giants as Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill and John F. Kennedy because, although virtuous, he has been unable to inspire the masses to do the right thing.


The reaction was swift and severe. Mandela’s spokesman blasted the broadcast as foolish and vicious and accused Britain of being “the main center of propaganda assaults” on the president. (Former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher has been another of Mandela’s detractors.) Embarrassed and distressed, members of the British Parliament lined up on Mandela’s side.

“Brian Walden has lost his marbles,” Labor Party lawmaker Ann Clywd said at the time.

Image Was Crafted During Imprisonment

Mandela, who turns 81 next month, admits that the image makers have turned him into a figure who sometimes only vaguely resembles the real thing. His ex-wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, also not one to mince words, has described the real Mandela as a stranger, recently telling an interviewer: “I never knew him. . . . To me, he represented a symbol of resistance.”

The image-building started well before his presidency, in the 1960s, when the white-minority regime banned the African National Congress and virtually ensured Mandela’s martyrdom by sentencing him to life imprisonment. The ANC jumped on the opportunity to attach a sympathetic, human face to the struggle.

“The ANC had decided to personalize the quest for our release by centering the campaign on a single figure,” Mandela wrote in his autobiography. “There is no doubt that the millions of people who subsequently became supporters of this campaign had no idea of precisely who Nelson Mandela was. I am told that when the ‘Free Mandela’ posters went up in London, most young people thought my Christian name was ‘Free.’ ”

Since those days, Mandela has complained openly of being unable--and often unwilling--to fulfill expectations of almost godlike behavior. His voice hoarse from campaigning, he told a national television audience last month, “I think I have done what was humanly possible within these last five years.”

During the brouhaha over Walden’s BBC documentary, Mandela even broke ranks with his own defenders, saying he was actually relieved by the earthly assessment.


“Such criticism tends to dispel the [unfortunate] perception that you are a saint,” he said. “It helps to make you human.”

In a farewell meeting with journalists, Mandela recently disclosed that he never wanted to be president but that the ANC “literally forced me to take it,” presumably because no one else could possibly live up to the advance billing.

The Making of an Instant Lame Duck

Mandela accepted the presidential post but asserted he was far too old to commit to more than five years. That made him an instant lame duck, some analysts say, and foreshadowed some of the most serious shortcomings of his presidency.

At the top of the list, critics say, is his hands-off management style. Just two years into the job, the president’s office acknowledged that Mandela was spending just three days a week on presidential business. By December 1997, when Mbeki took over as head of the ANC, Mandela stepped back even farther, performing mostly ceremonial functions at home and abroad.

Despite the many start-up problems of any new administration--let alone the first black-majority government in this country’s history--Mandela never seriously overhauled his Cabinet or fired those ministers who were clearly not up to the task. Instead, when Cabinet members came under scrutiny, he circled the wagons in their defense.

“He was like an absentee landlord,” said Themba Sono, president of the South African Institute of Race Relations. “He projected Dr. Feel-Good . . . but he wasn’t capable of really dealing with the nuts and bolts of administration. He prized loyalty more than efficiency.”

In that regard, many analysts say, Mandela’s presidency was largely an extension of his ANC duties. He drew little distinction between his party and state roles. Consequently, after relinquishing his ANC job to Mbeki, Mandela was perceived as rudderless as the country’s top administrator.

“As a president, I would give him a failing grade, but he was not a president, he was a monarch, and as a monarch he did a fantastic job,” Sono said. “He became a victim of his own image of infallibility. When he tried to go beyond the role of monarch, he could not be effective because his image tended to intrude. People were always looking at everything that he does in terms of his magnanimity. So he stumbled in the shadow of his great personage.”

As a case in point, Mandela shocked the world when he delivered an uncharacteristically hard-hitting speech at the ANC party congress in 1997 that attacked international donors, foreign governments, journalists, opposition parties and even some within the ANC as apartheid sympathizers trying to destabilize his government.

Much more characteristic of his presidency, Mandela has devoted enormous energy to promoting South Africa abroad and reconciling the country’s deeply divided races at home. Almost everyone agrees these endeavors will provide his greatest, and most lasting, presidential legacies.

But even these accomplishments are not beyond criticism. Many blacks, in particular, complain that Mandela spent too much time on reconciliation--seen mainly as coddling whites--and too little time on transformation--something that benefits blacks the most.

The reconciliation vs. transformation debate lies at the heart of the quiet dissatisfaction with the Mandela presidency, which boils down to a perception of lost opportunities.

If Mandela had invested his immense personal capital in just one area of transformation--for example, shaking up the country’s abysmal education system--he could have furthered black advancement by decades, critics say. Instead, in education as elsewhere, his involvement was limited to leaning on white business leaders to build new facilities and thrilling schoolchildren by showing up unexpectedly in their classrooms.

‘A One-Issue Administration’

“It was very much a one-issue administration,” said Schrire, the political scientist. “Reconciliation will enjoy its place in history, but he failed to prioritize what the other issues were. He chose constantly to play the international celebrity rather than get his hands dirty.”

The ANC flatly rejects such criticism, but in its own corporate way of doing things, it has tacitly acknowledged the complaints in the manner it has chosen to market Mbeki as the country’s non-Mandela.

Last week, the ANC announced a massive reorganization of the offices of the president and deputy president that will enhance Mbeki’s power and prestige as day-to-day administrator. Earlier, in perhaps the most pointed break with the past, the ANC election victory party was staged as a one-man show: Mandela, whisked out of the country by his wife, did not even make an appearance.


A series of stories on South Africa after apartheid, “Unfinished Revolution,” is available on The Times’ Web site: