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For Much Of His Life, Mandela Was A Controversial Figure


Nelson Mandela is universally admired today, but was a controversial figure for much of his life. To reconstruct what that controversy was about, we turn to Bill Keller. He's a New York Times columnist and former executive editor who once covered South Africa, and wrote a youth biography of Mandela.

He's on the line. Mr. Keller, welcome back to the program.

BILL KELLER: Thank you. Nice to be here.

INSKEEP: Easy to understand why South African whites opposed Mandela once upon a time. But what made him an object of suspicion to the U.S. government and others around the world?

KELLER: Well, the U.S. government supported the apartheid regime because it saw everything through the prism of the Cold War, and the apartheid regime was also fiercely anti-communist. And of course, a lot of the suspicion of Mandela centered on the fact that the ANC was very closely allied with the South African Communist Party.

INSKEEP: The African National Congress, his organization.

KELLER: Yes. So there was always the suspicion hanging over him that he was, you know, on the wrong side of our version of history. And, in fact, you know, we now know that he was briefly a member of the Communist Party. So there was that. After a long history of thinking in terms of nonviolence, he launched an armed struggle. It wasn't terribly effective. It was more of - sort of sabotage campaign than an armed struggle. So that saddled him with the label of terrorist, in a lot of minds.

INSKEEP: When a movement began in the United States to impose sanctions on South Africa for its apartheid regime, how much resistance was there to doing that?

KELLER: Oh, quite a bit. I mean, business was horrified at the idea of cutting off trade. And we tend to exaggerate the effect that sanctions had, I think. I mean, they did have some effect, particularly - not so much the economic sanctions, which tended to hurt poor people more than it hurt the leaders of the country. But interestingly enough, it was the sports boycotts and things like that, that really got to the pride of white Afrikaners and other white South Africans.

INSKEEP: Wow. You know, I had forgotten that President Ronald Reagan not only resisted the idea of sanctions against South Africa, but vetoed a bill that would have imposed sanctions; had to have the veto overridden by Congress. And Reagan even addressed the nation, appealing to the nation not to do this.

KELLER: Right. Well, there's a belief - I have not seen utterly convincing confirmation or refutation of it; but that when Mandela was arrested - he'd been living underground when he was caught by the South African police - it was on a tip from the CIA, which had been monitoring his movements. It's entirely credible. Whether it's factual or not, I don't know.

INSKEEP: Credible, meaning?

KELLER: Credible meaning it's what they would have done - (Laughter) - given the American government's relationship with the anti-apartheid movement.

INSKEEP: Now, when he became president of South Africa, we laud him today for unifying the country; a tremendous achievement. But I'm thinking about the fact that he was a president - which means he was a politician;which means he had an opposition. How smooth was his presidential term?

KELLER: His presidential term was rocky, in part because expectations were so high. There was no way that he could, you know, come in with - and remember, he initially had a coalition government. Part of the deal that ended the apartheid regime was that the Cabinet included members of the opposition, including the white party that preceded him.


KELLER: So, you know, he had that to deal with. He had instead of a kind of government or a political party, he really had behind him a liberation movement. Liberation movements don't historically make the transition to - sort of - sober governance very neatly, and the African National Congress is no exception.

INSKEEP: Now, with that said, Mandela seems to have done so much better than so many other leaders of national liberation movements who ended up in charge of their countries. What do you think about him allowed him to succeed to a greater degree than others, given all the opposition we've described here?

KELLER: To me, the most amazing thing about Mandela is that he is - was - a brilliant politician. I came to South Africa from five years in the Soviet Union. I'd met a lot of dissidents and people who were sort of moral avatars. I can't think of very many of them who would have made the transition to politics. They tended to be moralistic, you know, my-way-or-the-highway folks.


KELLER: Mandela had a great sense of stagecraft. He loved the handshaking and flattery and cajoling aspect of politics. And he was - aside from the one, permanent goal in his life, which was to get rid of the 300 years of white rule, he was an utter pragmatist. I mean, over the course of his life, he was a communist and a non-communist. He was a peacemaker and a freedom fighter. He was a friend of the nationalizers, and a friend of the capitalists. He was always up for whatever it took to get the job done. And that's quite extraordinary even in a less-fraught country, like our own. But in a place without Africa's history - that always just struck me as dazzling.

INSKEEP: Bill Keller of the New York Times. Thanks very much.

KELLER: You're welcome.


INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.