That Gift Called Mandela

Haroldo Dilla Alfonso*

Nelson Mandela. Foto:
Nelson Mandela. Photo:

HAVANA TIMES — Desmond Tutu called Mandela a gift to humanity. I believe this is the best description I’ve heard of a man who – in prison, in power or at home – has accompanied us a good part of our lives. Mandela was, quite simply, immense and, thanks to his tenacious company, we are all in one way or another better people.

When men or women achieve such dimensions and pass away they become icons. Then, there is always the risk that they will be seized in fragments that move us or are somehow convenient for us.

What’s worse, since his different and great dimensions have become profitable, they are appropriated by all camps – and not as they were, but as tolerable caricatures. This is what has happened with Mandela in some circles of our transnational society, that is, in Cuba and among its émigrés.

For instance, Cuban government officials and their intellectuals have prostrated reverentially before the revolutionary leader who destroyed the opprobrious apartheid regime and was later a friend of Fidel Castro. They have chosen to forget, however, that he effectively destroyed this regime through democratic means, through dialogue, tolerance and organization, and that his friendly rapprochement with Castro was part of a wide-encompassing vision of international relations in which there was room for everyone.

They neglect that he had very little in common with Cuba’s “supreme leader”, who entrenched himself in power for five decades. Mandela, in contrast and despite the immense support he enjoyed, was in office for a mere five years. Mandela is presented as a revolutionary in line with those who, in many ways, are in fact his antipodes.

In the other camp – the always loquacious Cuban émigré community – opinions have been more varied. If I had to draw a connecting line between all of them, however, I would say that they are characterized by forgiveness – that is to say, they have forgiven Mandela, as the FBI did in 1988 when it removed him from its list of terrorists. They have forgiven him for two main reasons.

The first is that they have decided to turn a blind eye on Mandela’s relationship with the Cuban government, as one does with the shortcomings of a son who has gone astray. That is to say, they consider it an acceptable deviation that Mandela, as a statesman, politician and human being, should have maintained friendly ties with political leaders who always maintained a militant stance of support for anti-apartheid activists and who provided the military support needed to break the backbone of South African troops in southern Angola.

The alleged hidden motives that led the Cuban leadership to offer this support can be criticized ad nauseam, but the truth of the matter is that they did and that it contributed to the disappearance of apartheid. Many in Miami are today processing the pangs of their guilty conscience, for the days in which they protested against Madiba’s presence in their city.

Nelson Mandela. Photo:

The second reason is that they have produced a caricaturized version of Mandela, a palatable Mandela who went from being a Marxist terrorist to a liberal pacifist. This is a dreadful historical falsification. To say that Mandela was quite simply a Marxist is to simplify his position, and, as far as being a terrorist goes, we could say he was as much a terrorist as Washington, Jefferson, Bolivar and Marti were – no more, no less.

To believe that violence is a possible response to situations in which power exercises this violence with no regard for the dignity of society or individuals does not make one a terrorist. To be sure: it can prove counterproductive, but it is not illegitimate.

Curiously, Mandela never ceased being one or the other. He never ceased being a man driven by an intellectual formation which included Marxism – just not the Marxism caricaturized by those members of the vulgar Right who do not understand it, or, worse, will never understand it.

Nor did he simply reject violence as an instrument, and only instructed the ANC to renounce armed violence when the transition process was already underway and was irreversible.

In addition to other great, personal virtues, there are three other points that continue to make Nelson Mandela a relevant figure today, and explain why the members of opposing camps declare themselves his heirs.

In the first place, Mandela understood that the use of violence as a political instrument may afford short-cuts that facilitate the achievement of short-term goals, but that it ultimately represents an obstacle in the way of reaching higher, long-term goals, the goal of a democracy among them. It is the tragic story of nearly all revolutions.

This is why, though violence was always one of the ANC’s militant principles, it was always subordinated to other aims and, on occasion, it had only a symbolic existence. At the end of the 1980s, the political circumstances in which Mandela was released from prison and De Klerk was forced to negotiate allowed the leader to organize a peaceful transition process and to put his best skills as a negotiator and consensus-maker to the test. It was a perfect combination of intelligence and showmanship.

Later, Mandela had the foresight to understand that taking the heavens by storm without having first secured the conditions needed to keep the heavens operating as such would end up creating a hell on earth. Because of this – no matter what his most intimate political and ideological motivations were – he concluded that his agenda was to be limited to the elimination of the racist regime, the country’s democratic liberalization and the creation of conditions for the socio-economic improvement of the majority through reformist means.

I don’t know enough about South Africa to express an opinion on the results of this decision. The truth of the matter is that South Africa continues to be characterized by terrible inequalities (64 on the Gini scale), with 52% of the population (62% of the black population) living in poverty and 30% of these living in extreme poverty. These figures indicate that we must continue to make inroads in the direction pointed by Mandela, in a society that knew the worst of colonialism for centuries.

Finally, Mandela envinces a superior ethical quality that eclipses all contemporary politicians. Despite his overwhelming popularity, he decided to occupy the presidency for only one term, and to retreat from public life in 2004. With absolute modesty, he showed the world there were other ways to do things – and, doing this, successfully contributed to a long-term politics.

Mandela was not the last, great politician of the 20th century. He was the first great politician of the 21st century, and, if his message does not prevail, or merely subsists as an iconic reference, all of us stand to lose from it. To caricaturize Mandela is to besmirch his legacy.


(*) First published in Spanish by

13 thoughts on “That Gift Called Mandela

  • December 11, 2013 at 9:58 am

    Thanks for the reminder.

  • December 11, 2013 at 6:15 am

    Moses, Moses… For fanatical Leftists like John you will only have real democracy and real choice when there is One True Party and only one candidate on the ballot.

  • December 10, 2013 at 3:43 pm

    Well said, Esther.

  • December 10, 2013 at 2:41 pm

    Esther, what other real choice did Obama have? Especially given the reason he was forced to share the dais with this tyrant. Mandela stood for forgiveness and reconciliation. The least Obama could do is shake this poser’s hand.

  • December 10, 2013 at 2:39 pm

    Who defines capitalism as “rule by the very few”? Capitalism is apolitical. Why do you think a boss is a Dictator? If he/she is the owner of the business, shouldn’t they have the right to make the decisions? I voted for Obama in the Democratic Primary in June 2008. My vote, among millions of others, made him the winner over Hillary Clinton who also wanted to be the Party candidate. I voted for Obama again in November of 2008. He beat McCain in the Presidential election. I say I had a choice and my choices won. Are you nuts?

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