Nelson Mandela was an “inspiration for defenders of liberty,” a free-market champion, an anti-imperialist radical, the leader of a “terrorist” group or a communist, depending on who you believe.
It's certainly rare that an international figure, upon his death, is eulogized by both Presidents George H.W. and George W. Bush and the Communist Party of the United States.
From his release from prison in 1990 (and before that as well) to his death on Dec. 5, Mandela was able to capture the imagination and attention of world leaders and citizens from disparate backgrounds, countries and political persuasions in a way few others could.
The near universal praise showered on Mandela after his death on Dec. 5 says a lot about the power — and also the flexibility — of his image: Mandela was able to unite people across national and political boundaries. Millions around the globe from many different political persuasions have been inspired by his story of imprisonment for his ideals and his triumphant release to assume the presidency and set his country on the path to reconciliation.
But that universal praise also suggests that a variety of contending political actors are projecting interpretations of Mandela's life and significance based on their own outlooks.
Followers of Mandela say his ability to remain morally uncompromised while still carrying out his diplomatic duties was one of contradictions that made him a great world leader. It may also be how he managed to promote solutions to longstanding conflicts — for example in helping persuade another old friend, Libya's Muammar Gaddafi, to move toward reconciliation with Western powers.
It was Mandela's symbol and also his diplomatic pragmatism that earned him friendly invitations to visit the White House, even after he had said, “If there is a country that has committed unspeakable atrocities in the world, it is the United States of America."
“Mandela was somebody who was profoundly principled, but he was profoundly pragmatic about how to get there,” said Phyllis Bennis, the director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies. "He would’ve been willing to shake hands with the devil” if it furthered his policy goals.
Bennis and others say it’s important to note that Mandela was affable and generous when he needed to be, but took a hard-line when it helped advance his country's foreign policy goals. But he’s one of the few that was able to do both successfully in one political career.
So, even though Mandela called George W. Bush, “a president who has no foresight, who cannot think properly,” Bush had nothing but kind words for Mandela after his death, calling him, “one of the great forces for freedom and equality of our time.” Mandela had a warmer relationship with Bush the elder, however, crediting the latter with ending Washington's tacit support for the apartheid regime as a Cold War ally and for pressing Pretoria to negotiate with Mandela and his political party, the African National Congress (ANC).
Still, the ANC leader didn't switch sides, as much as move to promote reconciliation in global political conflicts. Mandela famously phoned President George H.W. Bush in 2003 to urge him to restrain his son, President George W. Bush, from invading Iraq.
It's easier for world leaders today to recall the goosebump-inducing speeches and South Africa's racial reconciliation than it is to reckon with his statements and views on a number of global conflicts.
Ignoring the full picture, suggests Bennis and others, is a mistake.
“What we have to do with all human beings is draw a balance sheet, but in the U.S., we tend not to do a balance sheet — it’s either thumbs up or thumbs down,” said Bill Fletcher, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and the former president of the TransAfrica Forum, which played a leading role in pressing for U.S. sanctions on South Africa during Mandela's imprisonment. “Humans are very complicated. Celebrating the life and work of Nelson Mandela does not mean agreeing with everything he did. I have significant disagreements, but that doesn’t mean it takes away from his life and character.”
Fletcher and others say as time passes after Mandela’s death, we risk only remembering a sanitized version of Nelson Mandela — one that was agreeable to everyone. If that happens, we risk forgetting what made him one of the most important leaders of the 20th and 21st centuries.
If the world wants to honor Mandela after his death, Fletcher and others say we should remember him most for all the contradictions he embodied.
“It’s not about whether people like Mandela or even whether they respect him,” said Fletcher. “It’s about whether they identify him for who he really was.” That would be a leader who sought to reconcile both a divided people and a divided world.