I’ve just been asked this:
Steve – I’m curious as to your thoughts on Nelson Mandela, a modern-day Lincoln, who freed a lot more folks without a full blown war. Like Lincoln, flawed, but as Lincoln promised before his assassination, no hatred and no recriminations for losing 27 years in a prison on a bogus charge.
My answer is: kind of mixed. I mean, personally, one can’t help but admire him: he was determined, courageous, and fundamentally principled even where those principles (in my opinion, of course) were misguided. The comparison to Lincoln, however, is misplaced: Lincoln’s task was the destruction of an entire ruling class; Mandela deliberately chose not to destroy the ruling class, but rather to replace elements of it while keeping it in power. It would have been a good analogy to Lincoln if Lincoln had seen his task as making sure there were plenty of black slave owners, instead of (after 1862 at any rate) the ending of the slave holding system. (For the record, the comparison isn’t fair to either of them; they were working under such drastically different conditions that no comparison can reasonably apply.)
Mandela was a profoundly contradictory individual: on the one hand, deeply committed to equality and willing to risk his life for it; on the other, a loyal servant of the system that prevents equality. It’s easy to say, “Oh, yeah, well, so he wasn’t radical enough for you, he was still a great man and helped move things forward.” To which I reply, yes, he was a great man; but if you look at what can only be called the revolutionary situation at the point the ANC came to power–a situation he worked very hard to limit and to direct into channels safe for capitalism–it’s hard to simply say he “moved things forward.”
The outpouring of praise from world leaders is not, I think, just a matter of jumping on the bandwagon because someone popular has died; I think they also recognize that Mendela played a huge role in preserving capitalism in South Africa. You see his handiwork both in the improved conditions of many South Africans, and in the mass murder of striking platinum miners a couple of years ago.
ETA: The World Socialist Web Site has a strong article on Mandela here.