Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 26 July 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

'Nelson Mandela was not a secular saint - he was a flawed political figure'

'Nelson Mandela was not a secular saint - he was a flawed political figure'
'Nelson Mandela was not a secular saint - he was a flawed political figure'

He was, according to the South African Communist Party, a leading member of their party. He supported the use of violence. He was a friend of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. Nelson Mandela was not a secular saint. He was a flawed political figure.

One of two things are happening now as you read this. The more liberally inclined reader is frothing at the mouth and thinking 'McCallister has lost the plot'. The reader whose political sympathies tend to the right might be thinking, 'maybe McCallister isn't a complete pinko-liberal after all'.

Well, if you are still with me after the initial reaction, let me explain. The essence of political greatness is not the same as sainthood. Saints can live in near obscurity amongst their contemporaries and make little impact on the powers that be. Political greatness is quite different. It is not about sanctity. It is very much about changing how power is exercised in this world.

And what makes the political greats great, is that they are flawed human beings, sometimes making very bad calls, yet delivering democratic change. From the Left, take the examples of FDR and Lyndon Johnson. FDR gave America hope in the midst of the Great Depression, but he left unchallenged the appalling racism of segregation. Johnson addressed the grinding urban poverty in the States, but committed the US to a futile, costly war in Vietnam.

From the Right, Margaret Thatcher restored economic purpose to the UK and liberated the Falklands. Speak, however, to the inner cities and former mining communities about her legacy. Ronald Reagan won the Cold War but presided over massive increases in inequality in the US.

Each of these figures, despite their flaws, are political greats - they changed and reshaped politics in incredibly significant ways. And they did so as democrats.

This is where Mandela's greatness lies. He confronted the evil of apartheid. He overcame it not through extremism, not through violence, not through the ideology of the Communist Party of South Africa. Perhaps Pope Francis summed it up best when he praised Mandela for "forging a new South Africa built on the firm foundations of non-violence, reconciliation and truth".

Through the ballot box, in pursuing reconciliation, a with a spirit of generosity, Mandela achieved political greatness, leading South Africa away from the racism of apartheid to the democratic values of the Rainbow Nation. Mistakes? Yes, he made them. They are, however, footnotes to his grand achievements.
 

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