Mandela Leaves Divided Legacy in Africa

   < < Go Back
from The Wall Street Journal,

Former South African President’s Ties With Despots Drew Critics.

In death, Nelson Mandela symbolized Africa’s struggle for freedom and aspirations for democracy. In life, things were more complicated.

Mr. Mandela’s release from prison in 1990 transformed South Africa and helped inspire a wave of democratic revolutions across the continent: More than 30 African countries shucked dictatorship for multiparty elections in the decade that followed.

But Mr. Mandela was a pragmatic politician as well as an inspirational leader. He worked with despots in neighboring countries even as he laid the groundwork for South African democracy.

“He had to push democracy in a sort of undemocratic neighborhood,” said William Gumede, a South African author of several books on the country’s leadership. “These dictators are in power and sometimes you may need to have a nuanced response. For Mandela, these were the sort of things he had to always debate with himself and his advisers.”

Mr. Mandela fought for the liberation of his people from South African apartheid and became his country’s first democratically elected black president. While many of the African leaders around him, such as Robert Mugabe in neighboring Zimbabwe, clung to power for decades, he chose to step down after just one term, cementing his moral sway on the continent.

“What he embodies—simple living, respecting constitutional term limits, and rigid respect for the rule of law—that becomes the standard by which Africans judge their leaders,” said John Campbell, who was a political officer at the U.S. Embassy in South Africa when Mr. Mandela came to power. “What you hear now in Africa is: ‘Will so-and-so be a Mugabe, or will he be a Mandela?'”

After rejoicing over his release from prison in 1990, some democracy activists were dismayed that Mr. Mandela courted rich strongman such as Libya’s Col. Moammar Gadhafi and Nigeria’s Gen. Sani Abacha.

In 1997, then-President Mandela flew to Libya to present Col. Gadhafi with South Africa’s highest award for a foreigner, the Order of Good Hope. The public statements included no mention of widespread discrimination in Libya against its own black African population.

As president, Mr. Mandela had to balance his allegiance to democratic principles with loyalty to other countries such as Angola and Nigeria that, like Libya, had backed him during his nearly three decades in prison.

it was also Mr. Mandela who successfully pushed for the group of former British colonies known as the Commonwealth to suspend Nigeria after the executions, cutting it off from technical assistance and meetings and events. The move was seen as brave abroad but may have lost him friends on the continent.

Mr. Mandela also fostered a friendship with Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, who provided arms to his African National Congress during the 1960s when it was an outlawed political party.

“Mandela was an extraordinary man,” said Carlos Alberto Montaner, a Cuban based in Miami. “You can’t judge him by the friends he had. You have to judge him by the incredible things he did. He went into prison as an angry Lenin, and came out as a sensible and peaceful Gandhi.”

More From The Wall Street Journal (subscription required):