A symbol of the South African anti-apartheid movement and former President of the country, Madiba as he was often known provoked a range of reactions throughout the course of his life.
Hailed by some, despised by others; his actions left few indifferent to the system of racial segregation that was enforced in South Africa from 1948 to 1994.
Among the most famous reactions to Mandela came from the British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1987: “The ANC is a typical terrorist organisation … Anyone who thinks it is going to run the government in South Africa is living in cloud-cuckoo land.”
This opinion was common amongst many members of her Conservative party in the 1980s.
When the BBC screened the Nelson Mandela: An International Tribute for a Free South Africa concert in 1990, one influential Tory MP said: “The BBC have just gone bananas over this and seem to be joining those who are making Mandela out to be a Christ-like figure. This hero worship is misplaced.”
The arts world and music in particular seemed sometimes almost alone in their support for the anti-apartheid cause. At the Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute in 1988, 2 Tone ska band the Specials performed their anthemic song ‘Nelson Mandela’ which had become an international rallying call, and Simple Minds played their tribute ‘Mandela Day’. Joe Strummer of the Clash and Bono of U2 also penned a song called “46664”, after Mandela’s prison number, for a series of AIDS charity concerts in his honour.
Although Britain had perhaps the most to lose in terms of its investments in South Africa in the event of majority rule coming to pass, other nations also treated Mandela and his ANC as pariahs. South Africa was seen as a frontline state in the Cold War, hosting a major CIA listening station, and located in a vital geostrategic position. The ANC were Communists and Marxists. Indeed, it was a CIA wiretap that in 1962 led to Mandela’s first arrest. Strategic minerals like uranium also played a role in the promotion in the 1980s of Zulu Chief Gatsha Buthelezi as an acceptable alternative to Mandela. Buthelezi had official meetings with Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, and then-Mayor of Paris, Jacques Chirac. Buthelezi was built up, while Mandela was played down, his supporters labelled “lunatic left” usual suspects.
Lest we forget, while pressure built on South Africa’s racist state, as nation after nation imposed and then tightened sanctions, and while public opinion around the world grew louder and more persistent against the regime, many continued to do business there with clever financial frameworks, or by sanctions-busting, or via third parties. As early as the 1970s France sold the South Africans the nuclear reactor that would be the basis of their short-lived bid for a nuclear weapon, and Pretoria, even as it became increasingly quarantined, still found friends.
At one point there was close military co-operation with a fellow member of the international outcast club, but with a very different history: Israel. Yet when the ANC’s Thabo Mbeki, a future president of South Africa, visited Paris to try and make contacts, he stayed in a chambermaid’s room at a friend’s house. While the public had great sympathy fo the ANC’s cause, official support from the West was hard to find. Even on Mandela’s release from prison in 1990, few believed President FW de Klerk’s assertions he had found a man he could do business with after 27 years in jail. The mistrust persisted. The USA only removed the ANC from its list of terrorist organisations years after Mandela had left office.
A generation later in 2006, newly-elected British Conservative leader David Cameron denounced Thatcher’s position regarding Mandela, describing him as “one of the greatest men alive”, and adding that her opposition to sanctions against the apartheid regime was wrong. “The fact that there is so much to celebrate in the new South Africa is not in spite of Mandela and the ANC, it is because of them – and we Conservatives should say so clearly today,” he continued.
The right-wing French political party the Front National appears to have had a similar evolution of opinion towards Mandela. Earlier this year, the President of the party Marine Le Pen described him as “a figure of appeasement” and referred to the apartheid as “a questionable and unfair system”. However, her father Jean-Marie Le Pen, who is the founder and former President of the Front National, speaking of Mandela in 1990 said: “I always have a suspicion towards terrorists.” Mandela’s legacy is pure gold, and everyone wants a little shaving for themselves.
Many other famous voices have weighed in on Mandela’s legacy. Desmond Tutu, the first black South African Archbishop of Cape Town and a prominent social rights activist, said of his inauguration as President: “Huge crowds! The day when Nelson Mandela was duly inaugurated the first democratically elected president of South Africa… And you sat there, and you looked at the benches of the newly elected legislators, and there were all these “terrorists” — as they had been regarded by the former apartheid government. And there they were sitting. Many had been on Robben Island, in exile, many had been tortured. Many of us kept having to pinch ourselves to say, ‘No, man, I am dreaming.’”
Cuban revolutionary and former Cuban leader Fidel Castro met Mandela after his liberation and said of him: “If you want an example of a man of absolute integrity, this man, this example is Mandela. If you want an example of an unswervingly firm, courageous, heroic, calm, intelligent, capable man, this example and this man is Mandela.” Castro also said he recognised Mandela as “one of the most extraordinary symbols of this era.”
Speaking in Senegal in June this year, US President Barack Obama described Mandela as a “hero for the world” whose legacy will last “through the ages”. Ultimately, despite the vast range of assessments of his life and work and the broad spectrum of reactions he evoked, the words of Nadine Gordimer, South African writer and Nobel Laureate for Literature, seem most appropriate: “He is at the epicentre of our time, ours in South Africa, and yours, wherever you are.”
Mandela can truly claim to have become something in his life, to have transcended his situation, what people expected of him, what he expected of himself. Those who once vilified him and then sought him out for a photograph cannot make the same claim. Gordimer may even not go far enough; perhaps Mandela is at the epicentre of time itself, an eternal inspiration.