10 Dec 2013 | Tony Leon | Original Publication: BDlive
PARLIAMENT was recalled on Monday to pay homage to Nelson Mandela, who in death achieved what he managed in his later life to do as none before him had done. He united our fractious local polity and the wider disunited world, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe.
English Premier League football players, platoons of leaders from the good and the great to the venal and corrupt, the religious and the secular, the famous and the obscure, bow their heads to acknowledge the passage of greatness.
Born among peasants and chiefs in Mveso in rural Transkei, he died in Lower Houghton, Johannesburg, the historic lair of our mining Randlords.
It is very difficult to pay tribute to such a rare phenomenon as Mandela without resorting to cliché and overworked superlatives.
When, on March 26 1999, the same Parliament, gathered to pay tribute to a very live and alert Mandela, on his departure from what his biographer Anthony Sampson called "the golden perch" of his presidency, the cliché-machine was also in overdrive. This was necessitated because words sometimes seem unequal to capturing heroic deeds.
In Parliament more than years 13 ago, I wondered how a political opponent pays tribute to this singular president.
He was both a staunch and wily partisan politician, and yet flew solo in the rarefied stratosphere while the rest of the political class never reached higher than the cumulus clouds far below.
I thought then and now that the essence of Mandela’s leadership was his special kind of grace, which raised the sights of our politics. Were there other such leaders? In my tribute back then, I suggested there were, but very few of them: "There are three categories of great political leaders.
"The first is the great and the bad: this includes Hitler and Stalin.
"The second is the great and the good: this includes Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt. And then there is the third category, also of good, but of a leader born with a special kind of grace, who seems to transcend the politics of his age. This is a very small category, and in fact I can think of only two such men in this century: Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela."
Years later, I came across an essay by arguably the greatest political writer of the same century, George Orwell, an avowed enemy of cant and cliché. It was a reflection on Gandhi, published in January 1949, a year after the great Indian’s assassination. He wrote: "Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proven innocent, but the tests that have to be applied to them are not the same in all cases. In Gandhi’s case there is strong evidence in his favour…. For his whole life was a sort of pilgrimage in which every act was significant."
In Mandela’s case, one of the posthumous facts to have been confirmed, but much contested by his own flame-keepers while alive, was his membership of the Communist Party and its central command.
Between his final illness in July and his death last week, an energetic correspondence on this topic was published in the New York Review of Books. In the one corner was our acerbic local literary hero, Rian Malan, who had proffered evidence that Mandela was indeed a communist. This had been supported by the research of Stephen Ellis and former South African Communist Party (SACP) member Paul Trewhela. This in turn had been denounced by Bill Keller, who at the time of Mandela’s release had been New York Times bureau chief in Johannesburg.
Statements in recent days prove that, on this fact, Keller was wrong and his opponents were correct. Yet, on the larger question of what, if anything, this signifies, I think Keller called it right. On acknowledging that he "should not have been so categorical in saying that Mandela was not a communist", he noted: "Nelson Mandela was, at various times, a black nationalist and a nonracialist, an opponent of armed struggle, and a practitioner of armed struggle, a close partner of the SACP and in his presidency, a close partner of South Africa’s powerful capitalists…. But he was not a communist in the values he upheld, the politics he practised, the constitution he negotiated, or the presidency he held."
Another ace journalist, John Carlin, popularised the fact that Mandela’s favourite poem was Invictus by William Ernest Henley. But perhaps in terms of how he straddled the paradoxes he so singularly embodied and grafted them to causes greater than himself, we should reflect on the words of another poet, Walt Whitman: "Do I contradict myself? Very well I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes."
Mandela might not have resolved every contradiction his life and work embodied, and he never claimed to be a saint. In his essay on Gandhi, Orwell concluded: "But regarded simply as a politician, and compared to the other leading political figures of our time, how clean a smell he left behind."
• Leon is the author of The Accidental Ambassador (Pan Macmillan). Follow him on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA OR on Facebook: facebook.com/TonyLeonSA