I wasn’t going to write anything about Nelson Mandela’s death. Not because of any lack of respect for the man, but, rather, the opposite. I didn’t know enough of him to contribute much that is new.
I was set on this course until I considered a parallel that works in a surprising number of ways: the similarities between Mandela and Abraham Lincoln.
On its face, this is a banal comparison. Two great men, statesmen of eloquence, intelligence, and character, who guided their nations through very difficult times, and are revered by their former constituents. But there was more to Mandela and Lincoln, and there are important lessons that we can take from their lives and choices.
There is quite a lot of good evidence that Lincoln was a racist, or at least held racist views against African-Americans for much of his life. He was a Free Soiler, opposed to the westward expansion of slavery on the grounds that it would deprive white men of the chance to set up a smallholding on the frontier. Lincoln seems to have disliked slavery as an institution, not regarded enslaved African-Americans as equal to whites, and been uninterested in emancipation for much of his career.
And we view him as the Great Emancipator, in spite of all that.
(There are many historians who insist upon the importance of self-emancipation. I have a lot of sympathy with this viewpoint, but I’d point to an essay by James McPherson on Lincoln’s role as the sine qua non of emancipation to support the conventional view.)
There have been rumors that Mandela was a racist–none of those that I have seen are credible. Rather, the parallel is that the choice which most defined each of these men stood in opposition to the stances they held for much of their lives. Mandela is remembered as a peacemaker, and he was a proponent of nonviolence in the most well-known part of his life, after his release from prison. However, in the early 1950s, Mandela became convinced that nonviolent resistance to apartheid was ineffective. (Who can blame him? The white state held all the cards and had no interest in reform.) While Mandela’s support for a violent overthrow of state racism is far more understandable than Lincoln’s racism, it is just as true to say that the attitudes for which he is remembered stand in contrast to ones which he held for a significant period of his life.
The lesson for people and politicians can be summarized as such: changing circumstances demand a new analysis of a situation. Consistency of position is only worth as much as the position itself. Emancipation was politically and strategically advantageous in 1862 (in addition to being a moral right, as it always had been). Nonviolence was the best course after the end of apartheid because it prevented civil war, in addition to saving lives.
Both Lincoln and Mandela (to differing extents) are viewed as unifying figures. Mandela, as I’ve just noted, played a very important role in the relatively smooth end to all-white government. Lincoln did as much as he politically could to avoid the war (the Republicans would have needed to renounce their Free Soil principles to have any chance of preventing secession, and Lincoln refused to do this), and he tried to set up a relatively lenient Reconstruction process.
If there is a message here for political figures, it is that people like unifying figures, although not always in their own time. Lincoln, for instance, was attacked by his own party in Congress over his Reconstruction plans. The Radical Republicans felt that the South needed to be punished. At the same time, the view from the present is often used to obscure the principles for which leaders became known. Note, for example, the relatively little emphasis placed on the brutality of apartheid in talking about Mandela, or the inhumanity of slavery when politicians raise Lincoln. Those are painful memories, and leaders generally don’t like to make their audiences visit such emotional places.
Mandela and Lincoln left mixed legacies, after one digs through the pile of anodyne tributes. Postbellum America, like post-apartheid South Africa, was beset by political corruption and cronyism. Using the powerful shield of the Republican Party or the African National Congress, government officials, politicians, and capitalists used the state to make a buck or a rand. More importantly, the scale of the processes of reconstructing each nation prevented either from leaving their nation fully free.
In terms of corruption, both 19th century America and early 21st century South Africa had/have serious problems in this area which go beyond their respective Presidents. At the same time, party hegemony, aided by a party’s association with a great cause or great leader, can beget more corruption than would otherwise be possible. The Republicans during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age had a weaker grip on power than the ANC has had since apartheid, but maintained enough control to monopolize patronage in much of the federal government (the Democrats behaved similarly in areas, such as cities, where they had control). The absence of political competition, combined with a culture of spoils, make for a dangerously wasteful system.
While Mandela and Lincoln probably set South Africa and the United States on eventual courses to fuller freedom, those tasks were certainly not complete in 1865 or 1999–or 2013. Statutory racism survived in the US, and social racism and self-segregation continue in both countries. The heirs of Lincoln in the Radical Republican caucus made some great strides toward equality, but were stymied by white racism, North and South. South Africa seems to be moving only slowly towards equality of life chances and services.
The various dignitaries at today’s memorial service will try to take a bit of the glory reflected from Mandela and American politicians will continue to mention Lincoln in order to burnish their own credentials. Let them prove by their actions, not their flowery speeches, that these examples are worth emulating. They are examples that do not only include magnanimity, but conviction for a just cause.