The international praise lavished on him must be offset by serious reservations closer to home, particularly among black South Africans.
Nelson Mandela had a stock of little jokes he often used. Introduced to someone he had met previously, he would gravely insist, "Oh, yes, I remember Mr X — but I don’t know if he remembers me." The punchline worked because the idea that anyone did not remember him was absurd.
And of course he is remembered: but how? Strikingly, a reputation that quite recently appeared beyond critique is now called into question. Eighteen months after his death, accusations once voiced only as muttered asides are more audible, particularly among the black intelligentsia.
Mandela is frequently misremembered, shrouded in "memories" both simplistic and overblown. These versions honour a giant, but one that on closer inspection turns out to be a vast cardboard cut-out, a two-dimensional hero lacking depth or complexity. They tend to exaggerate either his goodness or his greatness, investing him with superhuman virtues and powers.
Hyperbole and rhetorical overkill permeated the eulogies when Mandela died. He was "a twin brother of Jesus"; he had been "sent by God". Secular claims were every bit as ambitious. Transformation in SA had been "orchestrated by one man"; another commentator likened Mandela to Mahatma Gandhi, Vladimir Lenin and John F Kennedy in a single sentence. US President Barack Obama, who is not often outpaced when it comes to the oratorical moment, declared that Mandela "has changed the arc of history, transforming his country, the continent and the world".
Paradoxically, elevating Mandela to unattainable proportions renders him less interesting and less credible. A complex personality and career are reduced to a series of abstract nouns: forgiveness, conciliation, peace and love. The historical figure is stripped of other facets of his personality: stubbornness, loneliness, vanity, a peremptory and even authoritarian edge.
The angry young Africanist is airbrushed out of history; so are the left-leaning nationalist with socialist friends, the militant who headed a sabotage movement and the consummate, calculating politician of later years. Mandela was a more versatile figure than the cardboard giant.
Beyond exaggerated superhero and saintly father figure, what historical assessments of Mandela might emerge? As he recedes into the historical past, how might his reputation be recalibrated across the various roles he played: revolutionary, African nationalist leader, manager of transition, head of government, and champion of a new constitutional order?
Any number of exaggerated statements portray Mandela as a revolutionary. When he died, the South African Communist Party proclaimed that he was "one of the greatest revolutionaries of the 20th century". He was not. His active career as a "revolutionary" lasted only from March 1961 to his arrest in August 1962. Throughout this time, Mandela displayed courage and daring; he was also reckless, imprudent and careless.
And for most of his political career, he was not a revolutionary in any standard meaning of the term. He was committed to ending apartheid, but not to overthrowing capitalism. According to Neville Alexander, based on their discussions in jail, Mandela saw armed struggle as pressure on the apartheid regime, not a seizure of power. By his own account, Mandela abandoned any idea of military victory and instead embraced negotiated change.
More clear-cut is Mandela’s standing as one of the most important African nationalist leaders of the 20th century. He ranks with Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, Jomo Kenyatta, Leopold Senghor and Ahmed Sékou Touré as the leader most closely associated with independence from colonial rule — or, in SA, the end of white minority rule. All served as presidents of their new states; Mandela was distinctive for serving only one term, and for supporting multiparty democracy.
For a decade after his release, Mandela was negotiator, symbol of transition and head of state. His role in the mid-1990s will secure his historical reputation. He bestrode the national stage, before and after the 1994 election. He represented the aspirations of the disenfranchised majority yet reassured white South Africans they had a part in the new order. His personal appeal and exemplary behaviour were key to the makeshift trust built over SA’s deep divides. The world’s media were entranced by a public drama with its ready-made hero.
Mention of Mandela’s global acclaim flags an important caveat in any assessment of his record. The international praise lavished on him must be offset by serious reservations closer to home, particularly among black South Africans. Such concerns seldom surfaced in the public sphere during Mandela’s presidency; but they occasionally emerged during his last years, typically expressed in politically partisan tones. Thus, the Azanian People’s Organisation Youth League president, Amukelani Ngobeni, said in 2012 that Mandela should apologise before he died "for selling out black people’s struggle". Sello Tladi, the Pan Africanist Youth Congress spokesman, castigated Mandela for "making sure that the property rights of the minority are protected".
In the past couple of years, sentiments of this kind have been voiced more frequently; not only as party-political jousting, and without exciting similar levels of controversy. Journalist and broadcaster Siki Mgabadeli told a British academic that "Mandela was too preoccupied with white fears and not enough with black grievances and expectations of a better life … from the onset, Mandela was too timorous".
When Mandela died, Zakes Mda wrote, in an obituary short of the reverence displayed in so many others, that "there is an increasingly vocal segment of black South Africans who feel that Mandela sold out the liberation struggle to white interests".
Recently, versions of this critique are repeated almost as a matter of course among African students and intellectuals. They surfaced in the Rhodes Must Go campaign, in which the formation of the Rhodes Mandela Foundation was censured. Musician Neo Muyanga argued at the University of Cape Town earlier this year that such criticisms of Mandela were a code for black anger at white South Africans. If Mandela was so uncritically admired by the white public, was he not necessarily suspect?
The critique — "he sold us out" or "he tried too hard to please whites" — is poor historical explanation. It is the mirror image of claims that Mandela single-handedly achieved democracy. It personalises a more complex and plural accommodation by the ANC with the interests of capital. Like so much else in public discourse today, Mandela’s legacy is increasingly polarised along racial lines.
The issue of whether he "sold out" will also shape more sober historical assessments of Mandela. During the run-up to the 1994 election, Mandela personified the ANC’s lurch towards the right on economic matters, and used his impregnable position in the party to defend the newfound fiscal orthodoxy. Ronnie Kasrils, retrospectively lamenting that the ANC conceded more than was required, writes that "attempts within the ANC to voice such views were imperiously put down by Mandela, who … by then was used to getting his own way".
Remember him? When it comes to Mandela this may not be a simple question.