Nelson Mandela’s illness has brought the South African icon back into the news, and conservatives have begun to debate his legacy. Mandela was a leftist whose African National Congress (ANC) built ties to the Soviet Union during the struggle against apartheid. The ANC also carried out human rights abuses and acts of terror (while Mandela was in prison). Those facts create a complex portrait–yet do not outweigh his achievements for freedom and democracy, many of which embody principles U.S. conservatives hold dear.
First, Mandela fought for, and embodied, the principle of racial equality before the law, rejecting the politics of petty grievance and entitlement. As a young activist, he resisted efforts to radicalize the ANC into an “Africanist” organization. As President of South Africa, his emphasis on reconciliation contrasted with the “African hegemony” pursued by his successor, Thabo Mbeki–a policy associated with racial redistribution of wealth and opportunity, and the aggravation of past grievances into opportunities for political rent-seeking.
Moreover, in the negotiations that paved the way for South Africa’s democratic elections, Mandela sacrificed the statist economic principles of the ANC’s most important manifesto, the Freedom Charter, which calls for the nationalization of mines, among other such measures. While the new South African constitution adopted socioeconomic rights and enshrined big government policies, the Mandela administration adopted a fiscally conservative, low-inflation policy aimed at rapid economic growth through the free market and free trade.
In addition, Mandela set an example for humble leadership, in contrast to many other African leaders–and many in the West as well. He lived simply, taking walks along public roads and highways, dropping in to pay visits to ordinary people (and causing headaches for his security detail). He respected the independence of the courts, even agreeing to appear as a witness while serving as president, and accepting contrary decisions with grace. He left office after a single term, though he could have been re-elected for the rest of his life.
Conservatives are right to be skeptical about the iconography that sprung up around Mandela. He is a man with flaws and frailties, and despite his successes, many of South Africa’s problems today–crime, HIV/Aids, disastrous affirmative action policies, a weak parliament–took root during his time in office. In addition, Mandela’s bizarre foreign alliances–which included the likes of Arafat, Castro and Gaddafi–maintained Soviet-era solidarity abroad at the expense of the principles of freedom for which Mandela fought at home.
Yet Mandela is not, as some conservatives have mistakenly allowed themselves to believe, anti-American. Nor, as I have pointed out elsewhere, is he anti-Israel. He greatly admired America’s Founders and our Constitution; he admired and sought to emulate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; he stood with the U.S. in our hour of need after 9/11. Mandela’s character contrasts favorably with that of American leaders today, who covet Mandela’s celebrity but lack his humility. He is a man conservatives should embrace, with his flaws.