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Nelson Mandela: His Life and Legacy

Anthony Egan, SJ - La Civiltà Cattolica - Fri, Jul 21st 2023

Nelson Mandela: His Life and Legacy


The 100th anniversary of the birth of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was celebrated on July 18, 2018. Co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize (1993) and recipient of numerous honors, Mandela was the first president of post-apartheid democratic South Africa (1994-1999) and has been widely acknowledged as one of the greatest statesmen of the 20th century.

In this article I shall examine his career, leadership style, his faith and some of the posthumous controversies about him, concluding that, despite his many faults, Mandela’s greatness remains. Indeed, I shall suggest that he was above all a public figure who embodied many of the central precepts of Catholic Social Thought.

A brief biography

Since his life has been comprehensively covered in his autobiography[1] and by biographers,[2] and since Mandela’s story is widely known, I shall be brief in summing up his remarkable life.

Born in Mvezo in 1918, near Mthatha, in what is today the Eastern Cape Province, the son of a Thembu chief, after his Xhosa initiation he was given the name Dalibunga (“maker of parliaments”). Although this probably expressed his expected role in the Xhosa community, the name is prescient given his later political career.

Having attended Methodist mission schools and the universities of Fort Hare and Witwatersrand, Mandela completed his legal studies as an articled clerk (a legal assistant) in Johannesburg. As an attorney he formed a legal partnership with his friend Oliver Tambo. Both of them became active members of the Youth League of the African National Congress (ANC), a political movement founded in 1912 to extend political and social rights to black people in South Africa.

From this base in the more politically militant Youth League, which moved the whole ANC in the late 1940s from a policy of conciliation to a politics of nonviolent confrontation with apartheid,[3] Mandela and Tambo became key players in the 1952 Defiance Campaign and the Congress of the People process that led to the creation of the Freedom Charter (a “peoples’ constitution”) in 1955.

For their troubles, Mandela, Tambo and 154 other members of the ANC and its sister movements that formed the Congress Alliance were arrested and charged with treason in December 1956. The trial dragged on four years, during which time the ANC was banned (1960), but culminated in acquittals for all the accused in 1961.

In the meantime, following the failure of nonviolent protest in the 1950s to convince the National Party government to even start to move away from apartheid, the ANC decided to move to armed struggle. Mandela, who was among the first to consider this possibility (as far back as the early 1950s), was one of the founding members of Umkhonto weSizwe (“Spear of the Nation”), known by its acronym MK, in 1961.



Oliver Tambo, his friend, was sent into exile to set up the ANC outside South Africa. Focused initially on sabotage and avoiding loss of life, MK by the late 1970s embraced (mainly urban) guerrilla warfare, while the ANC tried to build up underground political networks in South Africa.[4] Mandela was captured fairly early on and imprisoned for illegally leaving and returning to South Africa without a passport. When the rest of the MK internal High Command were arrested by the security police in 1963, Mandela – revealed to be MK’s commander in chief – was tried with them, convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben Island in 1964.

Lucky to be alive (since their actions normally carried a death sentence under South African law) Mandela and his comrades spent the best part of the next 30 years in prison. Mandela used his time studying the psyche of his white captors, while firmly and politely insisting that he and his fellow prisoners be treated with respect. Some warders feared him for this. Many came to respect him. A few even befriended him.[5]

From the 1970s onward, the South African state realized that apartheid was unworkable. In the 1980s, as both armed and nonviolent resistance increased and international economic sanctions took their toll, the state initiated secret negotiations with the ANC in a variety of places. Cabinet ministers met with Mandela in his prison cell; he spoke openly with them, insisting that the fruits of their conversations be relayed to ANC leaders in exile.

Once the ANC and other liberation movements were made legal in 1990 and Mandela was released, negotiations for transition to democracy began. They were not easy. Rival political factions fought for control of political territory in South Africa’s urban and rural areas; these rivalries were allegedly further inflamed by “dirty tricks” operations – organized, some claimed, by hardliners in government and security. Some even believed it was government policy aimed at weakening the ANC’s position at the negotiating table.

Despite this, and despite his deep mistrust of – and at times open hostility to – the incumbent President F. W. De Klerk, Mandela and his team (including current South Africa president Cyril Ramaphosa) brokered a deal. The 1994 General Election in late April, the first to include all races, went off with minimal hitches. On May 10, 1994, attended by thousands and watched live on television by millions worldwide, Nelson Mandela took the presidential oath of office in Pretoria.

The presidency

From the start, Mandela insisted that he would serve only one five-year term. (Constitutionally he could have been elected to two). Under his stewardship a new Constitution was adopted in 1997. With clauses that included socio-economic and cultural rights, it was hailed universally as one of the most inclusive and progressive in the world. Emphasizing separation of powers, it provided for state-funded watchdog organizations to monitor government and a Constitutional Court to interpret all present and future legislation in the light of the Constitution.

Mandela characterized his term by emphasizing reconciliation and nation-building, uniting a country that had been in low-intensity war for decades and under white racism for three centuries. Two events illustrate his approach: the 1995 Rugby World Cup and the 1996-1998 Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Ordinary governance in the Mandela presidency yielded mixed results. Though committed to narrowing the gap between the majority poor and minority well-off (which generally mirrored black and white citizens), and though he introduced comprehensive programs in public housing and welfare, as well as affirmative action and black economic empowerment, the results were mixed. Some of this was due to bureaucratic incompetence or corruption, as well as problems of implementation: insufficient state delivery capacity in the face of massive need.

Having inherited an economy already limping and in need of foreign direct investment, Mandela and the ANC consciously decided before 1994 not to pursue full-blown socialism, opting for a kind of social democracy. There would be no massive nationalization of industry; land redistribution would follow careful, legal processes based on “willing buyer, willing seller” policies that would not spook investments or risk food security.

This ultimately benefitted more the wealthy and middle class (both the “old” white and rapidly growing “new” black bourgeoisie). When he retired from office in 1999, Mandela was the first to recognize that the vision of the Freedom Charter had yet to be realized.

In retirement, Mandela concentrated on charitable works he had started as president, using a substantial part of his salary: his Children’s Fund and, in 1999, the Nelson Mandela Foundation, dedicated to education, development and HIV/AIDS prevention. His very public interventions on the latter issue were a major factor in shaming the South African government into rolling out antiretroviral drugs through the public health service. Despite failing health he remained a high-profile public commentator, voicing strong opposition to the war in Iraq, encouraging reconciliation between Libya and the West, and calling on the dictator of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, to resign.

When he died on December 5, 2013, he was mourned worldwide. Many South Africans, including many of his critics, noted with sadness the contrast between Mandela and the openly corrupt presidency of the then incumbent, Jacob Zuma.

Mandela’s legacy: moral capital

What, then, of Nelson Mandela’s legacy for today? Following the lead of Tom Lodge, who I would argue is his best biographer because he is both sympathetic and critical, I shall start by interpreting his life from the standpoint of moral capital.[6] As opposed to the charismatic cult of personality that emphasizes appealing directly to sentiments in a populist manner, public figures with moral capital combine action and behavior, rooted in deeply-held values and what is possible at the time. They act and speak according to their convictions. People follow them because they have moral authority rooted in who they are. In other words they are followed because the virtues they embody resonate with us.

Mandela embodied moral capital, not because he was a secular “saint” – after all, he was married three times, sometimes neglected his family (his attention being focused on the liberation struggle), and with a tendency to anger and stubbornness – but because he acted out of his convictions while keeping focused on what was possible.

In the midst of the 1950s, while the ANC remained committed to nonviolence, he saw the need for limited force in the future. Rather than using his charisma to force his views prematurely on his comrades, he bided his time until the hour was right to suggest armed struggle. Even then he insisted on restraint, knowing that it was not simply pragmatic to do so but that long-term good could be best served by seeking reconciliation with the white community that would not disappear from South Africa after liberation.

Beyond that, he saw his opponents as human beings whose inherent capacity for good could be mobilized for the common good. In prison and in office, while never compromising his deepest conviction in his own inherent dignity, the dignity of black people and all of humanity, he reached out to the white community of prison guards.

Free and later president, while uncompromising in his insistence that he be treated with respect, he sought to understand white fears (including those driven by economic interest) and to address them – not by lies or half-truths but by trying to convince them that the sacrifices they should make to promote equality were not simply retribution for past injustice but ultimately good for them. He tried to reconcile whites to the new South Africa by meeting them where they were – in social spaces like rugby – and drawing them into the wider national community.

This included his tactically brilliant support for the Springboks, the national rugby team, in the 1995 Rugby World Cup held in South Africa.[7] Though traditionally a sport of the white minority, with the team itself almost entirely white, Mandela pushed the whole country behind the Springboks – which started out with little hope of winning, but incredibly made it to the final against the seemingly unstoppable New Zealand. On Cup Final Day, Mandela arrived at the stadium dressed in a replica jersey of team captain, to joyous cries of “Nelson! Nelson!” from the predominantly white South African crowd. Against all odds in the dying moments of the game, South Africa won. And the whole country celebrated for three days.

That Mandela’s openness of engagement could never be at the price of moral truth is apparent in the process of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) (1996-98).[8] Political crimes and social sin could not be covered over in state-sponsored amnesia. Only by facing the past, Mandela believed, could all South Africans build a common future. This was a constant subtext in his speeches during that period.

However, somewhat unexpectedly for an overwhelmingly Protestant state, the TRC took on elements of a public and collective secularized sacrament of reconciliation because Mandela instinctively recognized that confession, however imperfectly framed and however deficient in penance, was good for the national soul.

The purpose of the TRC was threefold: telling the truth about atrocities committed by all sides (with perpetrators only offered immunity from prosecution for telling the whole truth); providing reparations or compensation for victims; and, it was hoped, reconciling victim and victimizer.

It was only a qualified success. There were moments of remorse, conversion and reconciliation. Many families of people who died found out who had killed their loved ones and where they were buried, giving them a degree of closure. Some victims received at least symbolic compensation for their suffering.

But there were problems: not enough money to compensate victims, perpetrators who failed to come forward, and the sheer number of cases to examine. Some critics objected that in telling their stories victims were doubly traumatized – with limited opportunity for care afterwards. Conversely, others felt that perpetrators got off too lightly. Still others objected that the TRC, by focusing on atrocities, failed to address the economic, social and cultural harms done by apartheid, let alone considering how these might be redressed. And parts of the liberation movement deeply resented having the atrocities they had committed during their own struggle treated in the same forum as those of the apartheid regime. Nonetheless, Mandela stood by the TRC, even in the face of opposition from sections of the ANC. He insisted that however inadequate its method, however limited it was, the TRC was essential to the well-being of South Africa. No one, on whatever side, could pretend in the future not to know.

On matters of the economy, while distressed by the slowness of progress toward equality, he sought to balance his and the ANC’s historic vision of justice with what was perceived to be possible in the volatile global economic climate. While some saw the management of the economy as haphazard during his presidency, many commentators on the left complained that his economic policies were not pro-poor enough. Too much had been conceded to supporters of the previous regime; capitalism and the metanarrative of global neoliberalism had been too eagerly embraced. These criticisms have intensified since his death.

Some readers may observe that Mandela’s practice, particularly in his presidency and throughout his retirement, resonate with themes in Catholic social ethics – reconciliation, peace (but not absolute pacifism), economic justice, care for the marginalized, and the common good, among other things – and suggest a deeply Christian worldview. Paradoxically, though he publicly appeared not overly religious, recent research[9] has revealed a deep faith from his Methodist childhood that sustained him as a prisoner on Robben Island, and throughout his presidency until his death.

Though an irregular churchgoer, he read Scripture, prayed and built up close relationships with religious leaders of all faiths, but – fearful of how some politicians play up their religiosity and conscious of South Africa’s religious diversity – avoided making public personal declarations of his faith.

Posthumous controversy

Mandela’s posthumous reputation has taken a severe knock since his death, raising questions about his legacy as a statesman. From the far Left, Mandela has been challenged for his economic policies and his perceived over-readiness to accommodate the white minority in South Africa.

A small point of clarification is needed here. The Left in South Africa is both diverse and popular. Founded in 1921, the South African Communist Party (SACP), at the time the only political party that was open to all races, played a very important role in the struggle for liberation. SACP members were usually also members of the ANC and its allied movements, including trade unions, during and after the struggle era.

The SACP adopted a two-stage theory of “national democratic revolution” entailing first the creation of a democratic country that would then, second, become a socialist state. A modified form of this was subsequently adapted by the ANC, and remains part of the theoretical vision of the post-1994 ruling party, though both ANC and SACP in practice seem to embrace a form of European social democracy.

The SACP, which has widespread popular support among South Africans because of its reputation for courage in the fight against apartheid and concern for the poor, and more recently for its fierce opposition to the spread of ANC corruption during the presidency of Jacob Zuma, is less hostile to Mandela and his presidency. While critical of mistakes Mandela made, and regretful that the 1994 settlement was less socialist than the SACP would have liked, the Party is realistic. It recognizes the limitations that conditions in the early 1990s placed on Mandela and his team. 1994 was not the surrender of a defeated regime to a victorious ANC but a negotiated transfer of power. Moreover, it was negotiated in a period of growing civil conflict that had the potential to turn into violent anarchy. Compromise was essential, even if it compromised the SACP vision.

The part of the Left that has most fiercely attacked Mandela’s legacy is a new party, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). Comprised of a breakaway faction of the ANC Youth League led by expelled Youth League leader Julius Malema, and incorporating some former members of grassroots social movements, it frequently argues that Mandela and the ANC betrayed the revolution in 1994. Often using overtly anti-white and anti-minority rhetoric, it has portrayed Mandela as a “sell-out” to “white monopoly capital,” a betrayal that has kept South Africa’s African majority poor.

This claim needs examination. Factually there is truth amid the rhetoric: the African majority is still poor and the white minority still controls a disproportionate part of the country’s wealth. But Malema and the EFF are ignorant – whether willfully or through lack of historical knowledge – of the conditions under which Mandela and the ANC negotiated the transition. Most EFF members and supporters are young – born around 1990 or after – and seem to have been poorly schooled in South African history. Similarly the EFF brand of “socialism” (if indeed it is socialism as opposed to what many see as narrow Africanist nationalism and populist redistributivism) lacks the Marxist sophistication of the SACP.

The historical roots of this far-left critique of Mandela, beginning even in his presidency, are found in the rise of grassroots social movements of the poor,[10] who protested against the slowness or failure of the ANC to deliver essential goods and services – and their lack of access to jobs and land. Once again, such a critique is at least partly justified: the ANC did not live up to its electoral rhetoric that promised a better life for all; government service delivery was marred by incompetence in some areas, nascent corruption in others.

Ironically, this problem was exacerbated after Mandela’s tenure by his successor Thabo Mbeki’s even more rigid adherence to neoliberal economic policies.[11] This, combined with Mbeki’s increasingly “imperial” style of leadership, led to Mbeki’s removal from office by the ANC itself. It is ironic that many see Mandela as the cause of the inequalities that intensified under his successor.

Toward an assessment

In his brilliant introduction to a 2013 South African reprint of Mandela’s earliest collection of writings No Easy Walk to Freedom, political analyst William Gumede bemoans the political and intellectual poverty of the ANC after Mandela. A new generation of the ANC, he says, seems more committed to “slinging insults at those with whom they differ, double-speak, claiming that they are advancing the interests of the poor but living opulent lifestyles using the very resources meant for such an advancement and often generally seeing the ANC as a career”[12] than being committed to public service and serious pursuit of the common good.

Ironically, many of those who currently call Mandela a “sell-out” are those that Gumede critiques. Politicians like the recently deposed former president Jacob Zuma and even EFF leader Julius Malema have lived the high life while deploying populist rhetoric, including attacking Mandela’s alleged betrayal of the revolution, to promote their agendas. It is perhaps significant that as the ANC has become more and more corrupt, Mandela’s reputation has been increasingly tarnished.

What of Mandela’s “future”? Much of it will depend on how well South Africans study their history. A history reduced to tweets and soundbites deployed for populist political purposes will not only distort but probably further undermine Mandela’s reputation. It will also not be well served by whites who naively or self-servingly mythologize Mandela as a kind of “Uncle Tom” who loved and understood them and pandered to their “special” needs, in contrast to the “anti-white” politicians of the present day.

Present and future historians have an onerous task: telling the unvarnished and de-mythologized truth, however complex and politically unfashionable it may be, to a community that is fast losing its sense of that history.

[1] N. Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom: the Autobiography, Boston, Little, Brown & Co., 1995; Id., Conversations with Myself, London, Macmillan, 2010; Id., No Easy Walk to Freedom, London, Heinemann 1990 [1965]; N. Mandela – M. Langa, Dare Not Linger: the Presidential Years, New York, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2017.

[2] M. Benson, Nelson Mandela, London, Penguin, 1986; E. Boehmer, Nelson Mandela: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2008; T. Lodge, Mandela: A Critical Life, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2006; F. Meer, Higher Than Hope: The Authorized Biography of Nelson Mandela, London, Hamish Hamilton, 1988; M. Meredith, Mandela: A Biography, New York, Public Affairs, 2010; A. Sampson, Mandela: The Authorised Biography, London, HarperCollins 1999.

[3] C. Glaser, The ANC Youth League, Johannesburg, Jacana, 2012, 11-71.

[4] J. Cherry, Umkhonto weSizwe, Johannesburg, Jacana, 2011; T. Simpson, Umkhonto weSizwe: the ANC’s Armed Struggle, Johannesburg, Penguin/Random House, 2016; R. Suttner, The ANC Underground in South Africa 1950-1976, Johannesburg, Jacana, 2008.

[5] J. Gregory, Goodbye, Bafana: Nelson Mandela, My Prisoner, My Friend, London, Headline, 1995.

[6] J. Kane, The Politics of Moral Capital, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2001; cf. Lodge, Mandela, esp. 167-225.

[7] J. Carlin, Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made a Nation, New York, Penguin, 2008.

[8] A. Boraine, A Country Unmasked: Inside South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2001.

[9] D. Cruywagen, The Spiritual Mandela: Faith and Religion in the Life of South Africa’s Great Statesman, Cape Town, Zebra Press, 2016.

[10] R. Ballard – A. Habib – I. Valodia (eds), Voices of Protest: Social Movements in Post-apartheid South Africa, Pietermaritzburg, University of KwaZulu Natal Press, 2006.

[11] W. Gumede, Thabo Mbeki and the Battle for the Soul of the ANC, London, Zed Books, 2008; M. Gevisser, Thabo Mbeki: The Dream Deferred, Johannesburg, Jonathan Ball, 2007.

[12] W. Gumede, “Introduction,” in N. Mandela, No Easy Walk to Freedom, Cape Town, Kwela Books, 2013, 25.

La Civiltà Cattolica, English Edition Vol. 2, no. 12, December 2018. DOI: 10.32009/22072446.1812.8

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