Nelson Mandela has been laid to rest in Quna and, according to ancient tribal belief, his spirit is now free to join his ancestors, Christian and other. The ceremonies memorably blended tribal, national and international honors. Cannons were fired and fighter jets roared overhead. Four of five living American presidents (three retired) attended at least some of the services which began a week ago, as hundreds of diplomats and world leaders joined many tens of thousands of South Africans and visitors from other African states to pay homage to their hero.
Back in the USA, when news came of Mandela’s death I was struck by the grace with which George W. Bush immediately expressed condolence and high praise for Mr. Mandela, who, it may be recalled, despised Bush’s policies. Departing from his prepared remarks on receiving an honorary doctorate at the National University of Ireland Galway in 2003, Mandela thundered “any organization, any country, any leader, that now decides to sideline the United Nations – that country and its leader are a danger to the world.” This was just over two months after the attack on and invasion of Iraq by “the coalition of the willing” led by American forces.
Mandela did not spare his hosts, either: “And they do so because you are keeping quiet. You are afraid of this country and its leader.” The American delegation at the ceremony was not well pleased, let it be said.
Having flown to Ireland from Iraq a few weeks after the war ended, and only a week before Mr. Mandela’s remarks, I was both surprised and gratified that such a revered world figure would so brazenly denounce the U.S.-led war and its perpetrators, who we learned shortly afterwards had deceived Congress and lied to the American public about weapons of mass destruction, “yellowcake,” aluminum tubes, and secret poison gas laboratories. Mandela was simply ahead of the game.
Returning to Ireland on December 14, I was mildly surprised in the airport to see in a newspaper a snarky political cartoon contrasting Nelson Mandela and Gerry Adams in a highly pejorative manner. In fact, not only was Mandela impressed by Adams, but both men had been branded as terrorists, both had taken up arms to attain freedom and national unity, both had renounced them and sought peace by political negotiation rather than violence. Both had been imprisoned for their political activities, Adams three times. Both were denounced by Margaret Thatcher as terrorists. And while Ronald Reagan never even mentioned Mandela during his eight years in office, he branded Mandela’s African National Congress as a terrorist group and refused to sign a Congressional bill imposing sanctions on South Africa because of apartheid. In the end, Congress overruled the veto. Sanctions were imposed and after intense international pressure, apartheid came to an end. It might come as no surprise that Reagan also had low regard for Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Mandela’s great friend, supporter, and fellow “freedom fighter.”
As for Adams, shortly after his release from prison in 1990 Mandela invited him to South Africa where a memorable and cordial relationship developed. Not surprisingly (except to those who cannot distinguish between “terrorist” and “freedom fighter,” as Mandela himself observed), Adams was invited to join the honor guard at Mandela’s funeral.
No, the difference between a freedom fighter and a terrorist (or a peacemaker) is not 1500 miles. It’s a matter of perspective.