Free (speaking) Nelson Mandela

The New York Times’ Bill Keller paints a hard but fair picture of Nelson Mandela in the Times’ annual review of 2013, recalling a day spent with him in 1994, the sight of Madiba’s ’edges’ and a few flashes of entirely human rancour from a ‘great man with flaws’.

“None of us who covered Mandela,” Keller wrote, “doubted his courage, his vision or his character, his greatness of spirit or his political genius, and yet some of the eulogizing felt sanitised.”

I know what he means. I got my own time with Mandela with four other reporters the same year, just 20 minutes at the annual Organisation of African Unity (OAU) summit in Tunis, his first as head of state, in the shadow of the slaughter in Rwanda and the equally lethal war in Mozambique.

Reasonably , I thought, I asked why he could not use his moral authority at a time of huge consequence for Africa to challenge the OAU, still the revolting club of dictators of legend, to change its ways on its own – African – terms.

“Rohan,” he said, gently touching my arm. “Sorry. Do excuse me.” And then he equally gently put me right. Or wrong. Basically, he gave us to understand that he would be giving Robert Mugabe and the rest of the continent’s tyrants, plus their western backers, a free pass.

Nelson Mandela statue, Westminster

We came to understand that he knew his moral authority was huge, but finite, so he was going to concentrate it all on the focussed but vast task of bringing South Africa’s black, white and ‘coloured’ communities into a single, reasonably functioning society.

This he did, and on the way he turned a blind eye on a lot of unresolved evil out of necessity. He made excuses for a generation of South African ANC crooks and tyrants rather than challenging them, calling it ‘loyalty’, and when that loyalty was betrayed by them, made excuses for them on their behalf, making clear moral equivalences between his endurance inside an apartheid jail and theirs outside in apartheid society. And meant it.

Were we disappointed? Of course. Maybe a little betrayed, even a little angry, like my Algerian colleague, then enduring her own lethal national torment. But we still masked it in our news pieces that day. “So much of the coverage celebrated the saint but missed the man,” Keller wrote this week.

Perhaps we too applied a little self-censorship in the name of legend-building back in 1994. But we did it out of respect for Madiba, the man and his life’s mission. May he rest in peace.

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