Nelson Mandela was no saint. He was just a far, far better man than most
So to Zakes Mda, who knows how to tell a good story, which is why he’s won multiple South African and British literary awards.When the story is about Nelson Mandela – and it’s a simple re-telling of what happened in Mr Mda’s parents’ living room – it’s guaranteed to be unbeatable.
Thank God for his op-ed in The New York Times, reminding an adoring world (afflicted with breathless 24/7 news coverage of Mr Mandela’s death and life) that the great man had his great contradictions.
Mr Mda recalled the hotheadness of the young Nelson and his father, Ashby Peter Mda, as they debated African nationalism all night long. They were the Young Turks of the African National Congress, regarding it as moribund and outmoded. They founded the Youth League. They pushed for an armed struggle and remained rudely intolerant of black people who “sold out” by participating in apartheid-created structures. Mr Mandela helped found the paramilitary arm of the ANC, called Umkhonto we Sizwe or “Spear of the Nation”, which committed acts of sabotage against state buildings and infrastructure because, said Mr Mandela, we “decide(d) to answer violence with violence.”
Mr Mda describes the inherent contradictions of Mr Mandela’s Marxist instincts and traditional aristocratic tendencies. He pinpoints South Africa’s Gandhi as the point at which today’s corruption began for “he was loyal to his comrades to a fault, and was therefore blind to some of their misdeeds.”
He describes the growing sense of betrayal within a section of black South Africans today, which sees the new order as fundamentally the same as before. And he metaphorically shakes his head over Mr Mandela’s grandson, Mandla, who is one of many keen to profit from the revered president’s name.
Even so, Mr Mda acknowledges Mr Mandela’s greatness. He was a “a skillful politician whose policy of reconciliation saved the country from a blood bath,” he says. And he speaks admiringly of “his compassion and generosity, values that are not usually associated with politicians.”
Surely measured praise from an insider has to be the greatest testament of all.