Commentary Magazine


Where Is Nelson Mandela?

Over the weekend, the New York Times published an open letter from the Elie Wiesel Foundation, originally released July 11, signed by 51 Nobel laureates, including Wiesel, the Dalai Lama, and a host of other luminaries, decrying the various British boycotts of Israel. These boycotts, the statement read, “glorify prejudice and bigotry.”

But there is one man, reputed to know more about the horrific effects of “prejudice and bigotry” than anyone on earth, missing from the collection of signatories. The absence of his name is made even more conspicuous by the presence of another name: that of Frederick Willem de Klerk, the last apartheid-era President of South Africa, who ably helped his country transition into multi-racial democracy. (No doubt the “Israel is apartheid” crowd will use his presence for their propaganda purposes. The presence on the list of Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian novelist and playwright, should complicate their attempt.) The missing name, of course, belongs to Nelson Mandela. And its absence is not all too surprising. Mandela has long been a friend of tyrants, from Fidel Castro to Muammar Qaddafi to Yasir Arafat. In the current issue of Azure, I explore the theme of Mandela’s support for these autocrats within the larger context of the troubling direction in which his political party—the African National Congress—is taking South African foreign policy.

Say an ill word about Nelson Mandela and you become, in the eyes of the mainstream media, international glitterati, and pop culture stars, a heretic of all that’s right and good in the world. But no one is immune from criticism, not even someone who spent 27 years of his life languishing in prison for the ideals of non-racialism and democracy. And if that’s the standard for sainthood, why are figures like Armando Valladares (who spent 22 years in a Cuban gulag suffering conditions far worse than those Mandela faced), Vladimir Bukovsky, and Natan Sharansky not given the same hagiographic treatment as Mandela? One cannot help concluding that the nature of the regime behind the imprisonment—whether a right-wing authoritarian one in the case of South Africa, or a left-wing totalitarian one like the Soviet Union or Cuba—affects the attention paid to the prisoner. And so I am left asking the same question Nat Hentoff posed four years ago, regarding Mandela’s silence in the face of Robert Mugabe’s destruction of Zimbabwe: “Where is Nelson Mandela?”