In 1994, shortly after he was inaugurated as the first president of all South Africans, one of the local newspapers ran an interview with Nelson Mandela under a huge, boldface headline: "MANDELA: I'M NOT 'MESSIAH." That this would be considered banner news testified to the degree of myth and the unreality of expectations that attended the man.
Mandela is now 94 and hospitalized, recovering from gallstone surgery and a lung infection, the latest echo of the tuberculosis he suffered during his years in the dusty contagion of prison on Robben Island. He may linger in the hospital, or he may be discharged to continue his largely oblivious old age at the retirement house he built in his native Transkei.
Either way, this is an apt time to think a few thoughts about what Mandela bequeathed his people, for better and for worse. Mandela's most valuable gift to South Africa was a culture of patient compromise. He did not triumph over apartheid by spending 27 years in prison and then cashing in his moral superiority.
He triumphed by spending 27 years in prison and then doing an elaborate deal with the men who put him there – a deal that temporarily protected the jobs, the lands and the industrial wealth of the white minority; a deal that made the disenfranchised majority wait patiently for their reparations; a deal that minimized the flight of white capital and expertise and averted a prolonged blood bath.
He was, in short, a politician, of a sort that was rare in the African National Congress then and is in woefully short supply today, here and in Washington: A politician with high purpose, a clear eye on the future, an immense generosity of spirit and deep reserves of discipline and resourcefulness.
Returning to South Africa, I was not much surprised to find that this blessed and abused country has fallen short of the promise of Mandela's days. That is not Mandela's fault, but it is part of his legacy. For what he left in his wake was not really a government yet, or even a genuine political party, but a liberation movement, with the mentality, customs and culture of constant struggle.
History tells us that such liberation movements do not so easily make the transition to stable democracies. Think of the shabby heritage of the Castros, the tyranny of Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe, the long nightmare of the Bolsheviks or Kwame Nkrumah's descent into authoritarian rule in Ghana. Examples abound. Even our own revolution required a civil war to settle things.
Liberation movements are held together and defined by what they are against. The African National Congress, which is marking its centenary year, was from its early days a conglomeration of interests and ideologies, from rainbow-coalition idealists to black nationalists who chanted for the blood of white farmers, from Communists to Westernizers, from guilt-ridden white liberals to power-hungry opportunists. It had exile factions and in-country factions, prison factions and underground factions.
It was inevitable that, once the shared enemy of white oppression was conquered, they would fall to quarrelling over the direction and the spoils.
Liberation movements – operating surreptitiously and conspiratorially – thrive on discipline and suspicion, and punish deviation or dissent. The ANC in its exile ran some camps that make the torture scenes in "Zero Dark Thirty" seem benign.
Mandela, to be sure, sometimes strayed from the collective will to show unusual initiative. Most important, while still in prison he sensed the vulnerability of the white rulers and opened preliminary discussions without consulting his ANC comrades; he was sure they would disapprove.
But he remained a party man at heart – to such an extent that he let the party elders choose as his first deputy president and successor a man, Thabo Mbeki, whom Mandela did not much like or trust. (A friend who would know tells me that after retiring, Mandela took sensitive conversations outdoors because he believed Mbeki had bugged his home.)
Mbeki was not as awful a president as the retouched history of his time suggests. He expanded a safety net to a lot of desperate people, and contributed to a first-world business climate that made outside investors feel welcome.
But ultimately he fell into a kind of paranoid isolation – the most horrifying symptom being his insistence that the rampaging South African AIDS crisis was a white-invented myth. The party stripped him of his office in a grotesque ritual humiliation – the kind of knives-out display that is customary for liberation parties feeling their power.