TEXAS FAITH: How do you assess Nelson Mandela’s complex legacy?

SMU Political Science Professor Matthew Wilson and SMU Adjunct Business Professor William Noakes comment on the complex legacy of Nelson Mandela.

By Bill McKenzie
Editorial Columnist

How do you assess the complex legacy of Nelson Mandela?
There are so many ways to get into this question. . . There are many aspects of his long, storied and complicated fight for justice. So, let me stop here and ask you:
What do you make of Nelson Mandela’s complex legacy?


MATTHEW WILSON, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Southern Methodist University

In evaluating the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela, we need to be very careful to avoid the simple, reductionist dichotomies that so often limit our historical, political, and moral evaluations. We are tempted to cast major figures as either heroes or villains, “good guys” or “bad guys,” without allowing for any qualification or complexity. Mandela’s case, however, requires a nuanced judgment.

Mandela spent his life fighting for a cause that was undeniably just: the end of apartheid and the building of a more racially inclusive South Africa. In doing so, he unambiguously embraced ideas and practices that most of us (for good reason) find deeply distasteful—communism, terrorism, and anti-Americanism foremost among them.

Too many of the reactions offered over the last few days have stressed one of those realities to the exclusion of the other, arguing (explicitly or implicitly) that because one was true, the other somehow didn’t matter. Such simplifications do no service either to history or to moral judgment.

On balance, I think, our evaluation of Mandela ought to be a positive one — though qualified, and by no means a canonization. Mandela is not really analogous, as some have suggested, to Gandhi or Martin Luther King, for two reasons.

First, he did not, at least initially, embrace their path of non-violence. Second, unlike either of those figures, he actually became the leader of his nation. This presented him with challenges that no one who is only a movement leader, however historically significant, has to face.

It is in this capacity that even Mandela’s critics should acknowledge his great contributions. Mandela did not remain frozen in time as the young, angry, communist radical that he was in the 1960s. Instead, when he came to power in the 1990s, he generally pursued a path of inclusiveness and reconciliation with South Africa’s white minority.

As a result, South Africa was largely spared the recriminations, criminality, and decline that have accompanied the transition from white rule in neighboring Zimbabwe. Mandela could have become, like Robert Mugabe, an authoritarian race-baiter rewarding his cronies and supporters through the mass expropriation of white property. He pointedly avoided this path, however, and South Africa (while clearly not without significant problems) has become a true multi-racial state with a functional economy.

Given this accomplishment — and the fact that Mandela could so easily have taken things in a much more destructive direction — Mandela’s legacy must be seen on balance as a positive one. He should be extended by his critics the same consideration that he afforded those who had perpetuated the apartheid regime: a full and fair accounting of what he has done (warts and all), and an acknowledgment that one should not be forever and irrevocably stigmatized by the actions and ideologies of the past.

WILLIAM NOAKES, Attorney, Adjunct Professor, Cox School of Business and Masters of Divinity Student, Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University

And now abideth faith, hope, charity, there three; but the greatest of these is charity.
1 Corinthians 13:13 (KJV)

As I sat listening to the radio last Thursday evening, an announcer came on the air to say that Nelson Mandela had died. As I heard her words, I reflected on his life and its impact on the world. As I did so, I recalled the Summa Theologiae of St. Thomas Aquinas wherein he writes of caritas – Latin for charity.

For Aquinas, what was charity? It was love – the love in the Second Greatest Commandment: Love your neighbor as yourself.

Few human beings have exemplified such love better than Nelson Mandela. Unjustly imprisoned for 27 years, he emerged from prison with neither bitterness nor rancor. To his former captors and the white government that had oppressed him, he showed love.

Indeed, he even invited his former jailers to attend his inauguration as South Africa’s first black president. Mandela’s love was transcendent. Indeed, Aquinas, were he alive today, may well point to Mandela as the perfect example of love.

May Nelson Mandela experience love in the arms of our Creator. Peace be with you, Mandiba.

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