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Deutsche Welle Claus Stäcker
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Mandela, man and myth

Claus Stäcker / sh
December 5, 2013

Media and politicians are vying to outdo one another with their tributes to Nelson Mandela, who himself disliked the personality cult. That's one of the things that made him unique, says DW's Claus Stäcker.


Nelson Mandela was no saint, even though that is how the media are now portraying him. Every headline makes him appear more superhuman and much of the admiration is close to idolatry.

Some of the people who met him say they felt a special Mandela karma in his presence. "Madiba magic" was invoked whenever South Africa needed a miracle.

Mandela himself was embarrassed by the personality cult. Only reluctantly did he agree to have streets, schools and institutes named after him, to allow bronze statues and Mandela museums to be built - a trend that will undoubtedly continue to grow.

He repeatedly pointed to the collective achievements of the resistance movement, to figures who preceded him in the fight against injustice and to fellow campaigners such as Mahatma Gandhi, Albert Luthuli or his friend and companion in arms Oliver Tambo who today undeservedly stands in Mandela's shadow. Tambo helped create the Mandela legend which conquered the world, a tale in which every upright man and woman could see him or herself reflected, be it in Spitzbergen or East Berlin, in San Francisco or Beijing.

When Prisoner Number 46664 was released after 27 years behind bars, he had become a brand, a worldwide idol, the target of projected hopes and wishes that no human being could fulfil alone.

Not without flaws

Who would dare scratch the shining surface of such a man, list his youthful misdemeanors, his illegitimate children? Who would mention his weakness for women, for models, pop starlets and female journalists with whom he flirted in a politically incorrect way when already a respected elder statesman? Who would speak out critically against the attacks he planned when he headed the ANC armed wing Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation)? And who would criticize the way he would often explode in anger or dismiss any opinions other than his own? Today, former fellow prisoners and workmates can now smile about such things.

His record as head of government from 1994 to 1999 is also not above reproach. Those years were marked by pragmatism and political reticence. Overdue decisions were not taken, day to day matters were left to others. When choosing his political friends his judgment was not always perfect. A Mandela grandchild is named after Libyan dictator Colonel Moammar Gadhafi. Seen from today's perspective, not everything fits the generally accepted picture of visionary and genius.

But Mandela can be excused these lapses because, despite everything, he achieved more than ordinary human beings. His long period of imprisonment played a significant role here. It did not break him, it formed him. Robben Island had been a "university of life" for him, Mandela once said. He learned discipline there, in dialogue with his guards he learnt humility, patience and tolerance. His youthful anger dissolved, he mellowed and acquired the wisdom of age. When he was at last released Mandela was no longer burning with rage, he was no longer a revolutionary. This is what some of his fellow freedom fighters now hold against him, although not in public. They wanted a full-blown revolution.

Respect for everyone

Mandela wanted reconciliation, at almost any price. His own transformation was his greatest strength; the ability to break free from ideological thought processes and to be able to see the greater whole, the realisation that those who think differently are not necessarily enemies, the ability to listen, to spread the message of reconciliation almost to the point of betraying what he believed in.

Only in this way could he serve as a role model to both black and white South Africans, communists and entrepreneurs, Calvinists and Muslims.

He became a missionary, a preacher of brotherly love and compassion. "Wherever he was, everyone was equal," enthused South African musician Sipho Hotstix after a reception for Mandela in London. Mandela gave him the feeling of being no less important than Bono, Prince Charles or Bill Clinton. He had respect for musicians and presidents, monarchs and cleaning ladies. He remembered names and would ask about relatives. He gave everyone his full attention. With a smile, a joke, a well aimed remark, he won over every audience. His aura enveloped everyone, even his political enemies.

That did not qualify him for the status of demi-god, but he was idolised and rightly so. He must be named in the same breath as Mahatma Gandhi, the Dalai Lama or Martin Luther King. Mandela wrote a chapter of world history - even Barack Obama said he would not have become president of the United States without Mandela as a role model.

And so it is not so important that Mandela is now portrayed larger than life. The fact that not everything he did in politics succeeded is aminor matter. His achievement is to have lived a life credibly characterized by humanism, tolerance and non-violence.

Serving the community

When Mandela was released from prison in 1990, the old world order of the Cold War era was collapsing. Mandela stood at the crossroads and set off in the right direction. How easily he could have played with fire, sought revenge, or simply failed. He could have withdrawn from public life or, like other companions in arms, earned millions. Two marriages failed because of the political circumstances. His sons died tragically long before him. It was only when he was 80 and met his third wife, Graca Machel, that he again found warmth, partnership and private happiness.

Setbacks did not leave him bitter, because he regarded his own life as being less important than the cause he believed in. He served the community humbly, with a sense of responsibility, of duty and willingness to make sacrifices, qualities that are today only rarely encountered.

The world in the 1990s and his own iconic status gave him a historic chance. Unlike others, he seized the opportunity. Using his charisma as a chieftain's son, he took it upon himself to educate his nation, to lead his people, to change the world.

How small and pathetic his successors now seem. Their battles for power will probably now be fought even more unscrupulously than in the past. How embarrassing are his own relatives, who argued over his legacy at his hospital bed.

Mandela was no saint but a man with strengths and weaknesses, shaped by his environment. It will be hard to find a greater person. Just a little bit more Mandela every day would achieve a great deal. Not only in Africa, but also in Berlin, Jerusalem or Moscow.

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