Why Minto shouldn't have gone

Last updated 12:00 16/12/2013

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OPINION: Like others, I was initially unsure as to whether Prime Minister John Key should have included well-known anti-Springbok tour protestor John Minto in the New Zealand delegation to Nelson Mandela's funeral. However, if you want to see the best case for why Mr Minto should not have been invited, then you could do worse than to read his recent opinion piece entitled A great man, but not a great president.

In that piece, he quite naturally agrees that Mandela was a powerful symbol of the fight against apartheid, but lays out the case against his presidency. In fairness, there was criticism of government corruption under ANC rule. However, the main thrust of Mr Minto's criticism was that Mandela had failed to up-end South Africa's market economy - or even made serious efforts to that effect.

I agree there are some valid criticisms of Nelson Mandela. From my perspective, his failure to implement "Mugabenomics" in Africa's only G20 nation should not be counted among them. However, you can see why someone with a Marxist outlook on economics would be aggrieved about Mandela leaving the fundamentals of liberal capitalism intact in South Africa.

The great irony is that today's Right-wing critics of Mandela also fixate on his revolutionary communist past.

They point out that he was not jailed as a prisoner of conscience, but as an advocate for political violence. They complain that, in opposing the apartheid state, Mandela made common cause with some of the world's worst tyrants.

They have a point. If you ever want to embarrass an ageing lefty boasting about how right they were about the 1981 tour then try asking him or her about what protests they undertook against the Soviet Union or Western engagement and accommodation with Communist regimes.

Some of them - like former Green MP Keith Locke - even took to the presses to support communist wars of aggression that ended up killing millions of civilians.

This was an ideology that killed some 100 million innocent people in the 20th century. It was an ideology that was opposed by the racist apartheid government and supported (or at least sympathised with) by its opposition. That complicates matters and should caution against the rendering of harsh judgments with the benefit of hindsight.

It is also beside the point. After all, what was remarkable about Nelson Mandela? It wasn't that he fought against the system of apartheid oppressing him. It is natural that such governments will throw up talented and determined opponents among the oppressed.

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No, the significance of Nelson Mandela lies in what he did after finally triumphing over his enemies. He publicly eschewed bitterness. Instead of revenge, he sought reconciliation. Rather than parlaying his leadership against the old regime into a perpetual dictatorship, he showed himself to be a true democrat. Those qualities are rarer than you might think - just ask the people of Cuba, Venezuela, North Korea and Vietnam.

Yes - if you are a hardcore Marxist you might feel betrayed that Mandela blew an opportunity to create a supersized version of Zimbabwe. Yes - if you are a fervent anti-Communist you might be exasperated that he never renounced Arafat, Gaddafi or the Castro brothers. That all depends on your perspective about such things.

But few of the great figures of history led blameless lives or governments. Abraham Lincoln wrote and said things about black people that would have made George Wallace wince. As a presidential candidate, the man who became the "Great Emancipator" even declared: "I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and black races. There is physical difference between the two which, in my judgment, will probably forever forbid their living together upon the footing of perfect equality [and I] am in favour of the race to which I belong having the superior position."

Winston Churchill - scourge of the Nazis - was not always as hard on fascism as you might imagine. He called Benito Mussolini a "Roman genius" and praised that dictator's decisiveness against communist subversion. He advocated using poison gas against "uncivilised tribes" and, reportedly, against striking miners in his own country in 1926.

And yet - when the hour came - both Lincoln and Churchill rose to the cause of liberal democracy. The world was made better for their labours. They are rightly remembered as great statesmen.

There is no doubt in my mind that Mandela belongs in that pantheon. As president of South Africa, he did a great and noble thing when it really mattered. Against that, criticism of the man from Left and Right is little more than historical trivia.

Nelson Mandela was a great president - and may he rest in peace.

- © Fairfax NZ News


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