The unctuous pseudo-grief in the West after Nelson Mandela’s death at the good age of 95 was to me nauseating in the extreme; it was so overdone that, though I am no Freudian, it raised suspicions in my mind of reaction formation, the psychological defense mechanism against unwanted thoughts described by Freud that leads to exaggerated expressions of precisely opposite thoughts. The Guardian and the Observer, Britain’s two foremost liberal-left newspapers, had between them approximately fifty broadsheet pages devoted to Mandela, many times more than the return and re-crucifixion of Christ would have received. Methinks these newspapers (and many others) did protest too much.
This is not to say that Mandela was without importance or that he merited no praise. His greatest achievement by far, and an important one, was the avoidance of the interracial violence that had long been predicted as “inevitable” in South Africa and the only way things would ever change there. He did this by his dignity and lack of rancor after his release from prison and during his presidency, the first presidency post-apartheid. For example, his enthusiasm for the South African team in the rugby World Cup, whether genuine or not, was a wise and shrewd way of trying to prove that South African patriotism should transcend racial divides, for of course the team was mostly white. No better way of calming fears symbolically could well have been imagined; Mandela played the part to perfection, and all honor to him for that.
But we should not exaggerate, either. The event that saved his historical reputation was not under his control. It was the downfall of the Soviet Union, for it was surely not a coincidence that the un-banning of the African National Congress and the release of Mandela himself happened only after the implosion of the Soviet bloc. Until then the Communist Party of South Africa, both the most Stalinist and the most resolutely pro-Soviet of communist parties anywhere (not always an easy balance to preserve), had what in Soviet langue de bois was called “a leading role” in the ANC.