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How Not To Criticize Nelson Mandela (Or Anyone At All)

Christopher Hitchens wants to know why Nelson Mandela hasn't denounced Robert Mugabe, and insists that "[b]y his silence about what is happening in Zimbabwe, Mandela is making himself complicit in the pillage and murder of an entire nation, as well … Read More

By / June 11, 2008

Christopher Hitchens wants to know why Nelson Mandela hasn't denounced Robert Mugabe, and insists that "[b]y his silence about what is happening in Zimbabwe, Mandela is making himself complicit in the pillage and murder of an entire nation, as well as the strangulation of an important African democracy." The most generous interpretation of this sentence is that Hitchens doesn't know what 'complicit' means.

The thing is, Mandela has denounced Mugabe. He has described Mugabe as a paradigm example of African "'tyrants' who cling to power…'who have made enormous wealth, leaders who once commanded liberation armies.' They had come to 'despise the very people who put them in power' and 'think it is their privilege to be there for eternity.'" For good measure, Mandela added that "'we have to be ruthless in denouncing such leaders.'"

That denunciation of Mugabe came a year into Mandela's retirement from politics, when he was already eighty-two years old, at the height of a political, agricultural, and financial crisis in Zimbabwe. It made no difference in Zimbabwe whatsoever. So Hitchens' notion that "the smallest word" from Mandela would make a "huge difference" is patent nonsense. His complaint amounts to accusing Mandela of being culpable for "the pillage and murder of an entire nation" because he hasn't denounced Mugabe frequently or recently enough to satisfy Christopher Hitchens, regardless of the negligible practical effect of such a denunciation. Which is a distinctly less compelling indictment.

Incidentally, Hitchens' failure to give an answer to his own question isn't for lack of having received one. George Bizos told Hitchens that Mandela is "a very old man" whose "doctors have advised him to avoid anything stressful." Well, that just won't do it for Hitchens, who insinuates that Bizos—the heroic human rights activist and counselor to the defendants in the Rivonia trial as well as (more recently) to Zimbabwean opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai—is prevaricating to cover up for Mandela's "squalid compromise."

It can't be that Bizos is stating the simple truth that Mandela is a frail ninety-year-old man whose body has been wrecked by decades of abuse and malnutrition and who lives in constant pain. It can't be that finally after all these years, his mind is beginning to show signs of what happens to a human mind after enduring for so long: Just before the Rugby World Cup final between South Africa and England last year, Mandela mistakenly called his beloved Springboks 'the All Blacks,' the nickname of their arch-nemesis New Zealand. That's not a minor lapse. It would be like a passionate fan of the Red Sox inexplicably calling them 'the Yankees,' at least if his support of the Red Sox were a profound symbol of his nation's post-apartheid reconciliation with which everyone from his country is intimately familiar.

South African blogger Michael Trapido puts things more politely than I can: "Madiba, of all people, has merited his greatness and earned his rest. While we would all love to see him as much as we can, exerting pressure will only shorten his time with us and be of benefit to nobody." Less politely, Hitchens believes Mandela owes it to Hitchens to give himself a coronary episode. Otherwise he's a squalid moral compromiser with Zimbabwean blood on his hands.

Next week in Slate: Christopher Hitchens explains that Martin Luther King's silence on genocide in Darfur proves that the once great man has descended into the squalor of moral relativism.

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