Fallacies of Infallible Leadership and other such Fables

Mandela and the Struggle – A Contrarian View

Was Mandela a saint? “Hell no!” I would argue against that assertion but then Mandela conceded that fact on numerous occasions himself so I am in good company.

Then why was Mandela sanctified, beautified and deified all in ten days? Even the Pope cannot achieve such miracles

Or more controversially, should he have been commemorated at all?

 A Troubling Past?

Within right wing and racist circles, the latter assertion would apply with many still firmly of the belief that the ANC’s first 50 years of struggle to obtain political rights for the majority through a non-violent Gandhian pacifist policy, which the White Minority ignored with contempt, should never morally have been transformed into an armed rebellion against white rule.

In this regard the Western World was on the wrong side of history when they opposed all attempts by the Third World countries to obtain political independence or freedom for their people. The probable cause of this blind-siding process was their own Colonial Past. All that that attitude created was a void into which the Socialist and Communist countries took immediate advantage. An excellent example is Vietnam prior to WW2 where the local independence movement sought American assistance to overthrow the French administration in French Indo-China.

Due to the American reluctance to provide support for their cause in spite of the own anti-colonial heritage, did the Vietnamese increasingly woo the Communists to obtain that support.

From an anti-colonial mentality prior to WW2, during the Cold War subsequent to WW2, the United States reneged on these viewpoints thereby setting themselves up for failure in the Third World by supporting the oppressing Colonial Powers.

Nelson Mandela#4

Why I spent an inordinate amount of time on a seemingly peripheral issue is that this aspect is central to white South Africans amnesia regarding Mandela’s past. Whilst declarations and outpourings of love and support by fellow whites has been the order of the day – and rightfully so in my opinion – these incantations have whitewashed the role of the ANC, and Mandela in particular, in the armed struggle.

It is here that the Rubicon has not necessarily been crossed by all white South Africans that internationally it is acceptable to oppose oppression by violent means. The majority of the countries in the world arose on this basis in the past 50 years and such “terrorists” or liberation fighters subsequently became the future ruling parties in these countries. Israel is a case in point.

South Africa – and Mandela in particular – was no different in this regard! Any residual anger at that political reality needs to be disabused. This needs to be factored into Mandela’s record not as a negative but merely as a political reality.

Atrocities were committed by both sides in this dirty war. Vusi Pikoli, the former National Director of Public Prosecutions in his autobiography My Second Initiation tells of hearing at the TRC how his childhood friend Sizwe was murdered by the Security Police because he would not provide them with the information that they required. His body was subsequently burnt and the ashes thrown in the Komati River to prevent any exhumations or traceability of any sort back to the perpetrators.

Vusi Pikoli - Former Head of the NPA

Vusi Pikoli – Former Head of the NPA

These four white policemen were supposedly protecting civilisation by such vile and atrocious acts. On Sunday they attended the Dutch Reformed Church service and the next day they drank brandy and braaied meat while they burnt Sizwe’s body.

How Christian?

How civilised?

It is that vile and atrocious behaviour that the Umkhonto we Sizwe was formed by none other than Nelson Mandela himself.

In the beatification process this part of his past was airbrushed out of existence.

The world is still faced with wars to overthrow authoritarian and dictatorial governments such as in Syria. Like these liberators, Nelson Mandela should never bear the epithet of “terrorist” as it is misplaced.


In my view timing is everything in these situations. As Mandela discovered in the sixties, the SA Government was both too strong and also unwilling to concede power at that point. If Mandela had already been say 60 years old, he would never have seen the granting of equal rights to blacks within his lifetime.

Winston Churchill

The same was said of Churchill in the 1930s when snide comments were made that he “had a brilliant past behind him.” If the British under Chamberlain had embarked upon a policy of non-appeasement and Hitler’s ambitions had been thwarted, Churchill would have been remembered much like an Anthony Eden rather than the towering figure that he became.

This does not negate the innate greatness of either but rather that greatness is expressed through action and not through a latent ability.

In this regard, Mandela’s timing was impeccable. He was the senior member of the ANC and the most visible embodiment of “evil” from a white perspective but his timing was propitious: the white electorate was demoralised and De Klerk was ready to negotiate.

Let’s buttress this with some facts so that my arguments are not misunderstood. Let me make it abundantly clear that South Africa was far from collapse. The government’s ability to perpetuate the situation for another generation was undoubted not so much the rank and file ANC Supporters but rather amongst the upper echelons. A long drawn-out low intensity war lay ahead with its concomitant drain on money for the upliftment of the poor being siphoned into military expenditure.

Combined with this was an increasingly prosperous white community that was demoralised with these prospects. Their willingness to accept the status quo was being sapped not by the efficiencies of the ANC’s armed struggle but rather a moral ambiguity of the righteousness of their cause.

Instead the ANC had the world and history on its side. The ANC held all the aces in the long-term and their position was ineluctable.

Notwithstanding this, like Israel a rabid racist right wing party could have obtained power and such a latent threat was posed by the Conservative Party if the Nationalist Party had moved too quickly to hand over power.

Like Gorbachev, De Klerk was not aiming at the total dismemberment of the Nationalist’s Policies but rather an accommodation of some sort. But like Gorbachev, there was no middle path. The majority would never countenance that. But like a whirlpool, once sucked it, one is ineluctably drawn to it epicentre and as one’s power becomes weaker, one’s opponent merely awaits in anticipation.

Like De Klerk, Miikhail Gorbachev rode the tiger of change

Like De Klerk, Miikhail Gorbachev rode the tiger of change

In such a situation, De Klerk could well have reneged on previous commitments and reverted to the status quo. It would have been messy but as most commenters acknowledge, the MK was never a formidable opponent and could easily have been overrun given the military might of the Nationalists.

Again timing was everything. De Klerk was Mandela’s opponent and not a Eugene Terreblanche, uncompromising and unsophisticated in the art of negotiation.

Various sections of the ANC have subsequently rebuked the Nobel Committee for awarding De Klerk with the Noble Prize jointly with Mandela but in this regard I whole-heartedly support their contention that De Klerk’s role in a successful transition was equally critical to its success.

Through his calm handling of a difficult process and the constant reassurances to the white community, he kept them on-sides during the whole process. Hence in my view he is a worthy co-winner.

 Mandela’s greatest achievement

All leaders have strengths and weaknesses. Like managers one can classify them in many ways. One has the Maintenance Manager who is able to keep a ship on an even keel but cannot produce that revolutionary innovation, peddle that new concept or create that new market. Such a change requires a Transformational Manager like a Steve Jobs.

Epithets such as fair or pleasant could be attributed to the former type of manager whereas driven, hard-as-nails, unsympathetic could be attached to the latter.

Mandela was undoubtedly a warm, caring person who could embrace an antagonist like Betsie Verwoerd and through their genuine caring nature win them over. Such was the measure of the man. Large swathes of the Afrikaner populace fell under this spell. As his magnetic personality could also convince the black masses seeking revenge that there was a better way, he was able to draw both communities into a vision of a shared future.

However Mandela’s handling of Chris Hani’s assassination ranks in my view as the highpoint of his greatness. With the country teetering on the edge of civil war, he calmly pointed out to his detractors within the masses calling for retribution that it was in fact a white woman who had assisted the police in the detention of the two suspects.

Nelson Mandela#6

Only a man with both the stature and the skill of a Mandela could have averted such a catastrophe.

For this feat alone, Mandela richly deserves the highest accolades.

Mandela’s weaknesses

Mandela was not one for detail as he was more the people person. He left the running of SA to his deputy, Thabo Mbeki.

Without a firm hand on the tiller, I contend that this epoch marked the start of the rot with the first slew of corruption becoming evident.

Furthermore his administration was characterised with the drafting of plans upon plans rather than the messy execution phase thereof. Whilst the necessity of their drafts is undeniable, the number of iterations and permutations and colours was excessive. Whilst great on paper, as the SA public has discovered to its chagrin, worthless unless enforced.

Nelson Mandela #2

Whilst it is not the role of an ex-president to “manage from the grave” so to speak, Mandela never engaged Thabo Mbeki about his disastrous policy on AIDS. This resulted in an estimated 300,000 unnecessary deaths. Due to the magnitude of the crisis, Mandela should have weighed in but he was persuaded otherwise by the senior ANC officials.

A fatal flaw in my view!

Belief in fallacies

The world wants a hero. Actually it is worse than that. They NEED a hero and Mandela filled that need.

In filling that need, like all other times that they do, the whole person is never considered and will possibly never be considered.

For example today I personally rate Lyndon Johnson as a better president than Kennedy simply of the basis on the achievements of their legislative program. Kennedy failed to get congressional approval for all three of this key bills viz scrapping of segregation in the South, Educational reform and the introduction of Medicare.

With his charm and boyish looks he easily beguiled an American public in perpetuity of his greatness whereas Lyndon the nasty pugnatilist and political player got the job done. All three Bills were passed without major amendments yet where does the credit lie: with Kennedy and not Johnson.

In SA why was there an outpouring of anger against Oscar Pistorius when Reeva Steenkamp was “just another murder?”

The underlying reason for the bile and venom spewed at Oscar was a result of the fact that he was a fallen idol. Their idolatry had conjured up an impossibly perfect phantom. The smashing of that chimera, created a baying for blood out of all magnitude to the deed however dastardly.

Similar scenes were witnessed on the admission of doping by Lance Armstrong.

The continued belief in saints and idols will forever generate disappointment when their feet of clay are uncovered.

Similarly with Mandela. A fate of diminishment awaits. This will never detract in any measure from his humanity, his genuine almost saintly empathy for the poor or the victims. His was not the platitudes so beloved of the professional politician hoping to garner another vote. In Mandela’s case, such empathy was heart-felt which created a life-long bound to all her knew or all who met him.

He was just the person that SA requires at that juncture in its history.

Nelson Mandela in traditional dress in 1950



Mandela was definitely not a saint but for valid reasons is venerated throughout the world as the twentieth century’s greatest icon.

I can only concur with that appellation. Gandhi and Martin Luther King come second but only a distant second.

To imagine a saint is allowing oneself to suffer disappoint as human mistakes, errors and missteps become known. By all accounts he was fallible but in accepting his own fallibility, we should embrace him not as a saint or an idol but as a human being who oversaw with others the birth of a democratic South Africa.

That path does not lead to disappointment, soul searching and hand-wringing.


















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1 Comment

  1. Hi Dean
    I look forward to following the comments on this article
    I just want to focus at this stage on one aspect and that was the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to both Madiba and FW. Some years back I visited Coventry Cathedral which styles itself as the “Cathedral of Reconciliation”. Coventry was heavily bombed during the second world war and the original Cathedral was a “total wreck” as a result. Alongside the old Cathedral is the new and their mission is one of reconciliation. For me the message became more visible as I moved from Coventry to Berlin within a day or two and saw first hand the damage that the English had inflicted on Berlin with their raids.
    The year I was in Coventry they had chosen their “Man of Reconciliation” for the year and they chose “FW” alone. I have no doubt that his role was as important as that of Madiba

    • I concur with your comment and I also hope that there are other comments. Why I believe that he is a worthy co-winner is for the vital role that he played in keeping the white populous on-sides.


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