Per presidential proclamation, in rare tribute to a foreign leader, American flags were flown at half-staff on Monday at the White House, federal buildings, military bases and embassies, to mark the death of former South African President Nelson Mandela.
On Tuesday, President Barack Obama, joined by former Presidents George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, joined world leaders who had hastily rearranged their schedules to make the long trip to Pretoria to pay their respects to Mr. Mandela.
For the American government and other Western leaders, it was a stunning turnaround.
As recently as 2008, Mandela was on a U.S. watch list for international terrorists and needed a special waiver from the State Department to be able to enter the United States.
While the fact that Mandela stayed on this list well after he was elected president of South Africa was primarily due to a bureaucratic glitch, the fact remains that under the Reagan administration — and later the first Bush administration as well — the State Department considered Mandela’s political party, the African National Congress, to be a terrorist organization. In 1986, in a reference to the ANC, President Reagan said it engaged in “calculated terror … the mining of roads, the bombings of public places, designed to bring about further repression.”
This attitude was heavily influenced by the Cold War that was still raging at the time. Reagan was deeply concerned that many members of the ANC were also involved with the South African Communist Party, and that while the apartheid regime against which it was battling supported the United States, the ANC was clearly supportive of the U.S.S.R.
At the same time, while the apartheid regime was itself guilty of heinous violations of human rights, a 1998 report by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa, which was commissioned by Mandela, confirmed many of Reagan’s charges regarding the laying of mines.
It also found that the military wing of the ANC was “guilty of gross violations of human rights in certain circumstances,” including torture and causing the death of individuals they had seized. Some of these violations continued even after Mandela was freed from prison in 1990.
In paying tribute to Mandela, President Obama sought to compare him to Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., two leaders who sought to change their nations through civil disobedience and other nonviolent forms of protest.
But Mandela — who was captured by South African security forces in 1962 based on information provided by the CIA — openly acknowledged that he had co-founded the Umkhonto we Sizwe — the armed wing of the ANC.
“Only when all else had failed, when all channels of peaceful protest had been barred to us, the decision was made to embark on violent forms of struggle, and to form Umkhonto we Sizwe,” Mandela declared at the beginning of his 1964 trial on sabotage charges.
He was subsequently sentenced to life in prison and spent 27 years behind bars, many of them in the harsh Robben Island prison near Cape Town.
In 1990, only months after the Berlin Wall came down, the white minority rulers of South Africa finally came to the realization that apartheid would have to end and, after extensive negotiations, released Mandela.
Four years later, after the black majority was finally permitted to participate in a free election, Mandela won the presidency in a landslide.
While he was gracious to his persecutors, he also never forgot those who had helped him in his struggles — no matter how notorious or evil they may have been.
Mandela’s close affinity for arch-terrorist Yasser Arafat, and his friendship with ruthless dictators such as Cuba’s Fidel Castro and Libya’s Muammar Gadhafi, were deeply disturbing to many. But to Mandela it was matter of gratitude: they had stood by the ANC in its struggle against apartheid.
His strong support of the PLO rankled many supporters of Israel, yet Mandela had close ties with the Jewish community in South Africa. And as South African Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein related in a conversation with Hamodia (see article, p. B30), Mandela was also extremely grateful to Jews.
“A Jewish lawyer in Johannesburg gave him his first job. The lead attorney mounting his defense in the Revonia trial, that sent him and many codefendants to prison on Robben Island, was Jewish,” Rabbi Goldstein says.
This gripping story — how a man long perceived as a pariah has become an international hero, how a man America considered a terrorist is now hailed by us as a symbol of freedom — contains important lessons.
It reminds us just how unpredictable is the course of history, and how dramatically world opinion can change. Often decisions made by policymakers that affect the lives of millions are based on positions and assumptions that at the time seem set in stone —only to be reversed a few short years later.
Equally important is the lesson taught by Mandela’s courageous and pragmatic decision after being freed from prison to adopt a path of reconciliation. Instead of taking revenge on those who kept him behind bars for decades — refusing to allow him to attend the funeral of his mother and of a son who was killed in a car crash — he reached out to them with a message of forgiveness. At his inauguration he honored his jailers, and even sang the anthem of those against whom he had fought for decades.
In the process, he managed to gain the grudging respect of many of his sworn enemies, and earn himself a remarkable legacy.
Most of all, the story of Nelson Mandela is yet another reminder of how mere mortals are no more than puppets, for ultimately their fates lie solely in the Hand of the King of Kings. It is only the Creator who decides who will rise and who will fall, who will leave the world with fame and honor and who with obscurity and ignobility.