If you’re a partisan, or just an historian committed to understanding the past as it really was, you are likely to be annoyed at the way great moral leaders get domesticated into respectable icons. So it is understandable that my colleague Omid Safi should denounce the tendency to smooth out Nelson Mandela’s radical edges. “Let us bury (the whitewashed) Mandela,” he protests. “Long live the real Mandela!” -
My own view, however, is that whitewashing our prophets is as desirable as it is inevitable. The whitewash is what preserves them in public consciousness. If the whitewashed Martin Luther King, Jr. had been buried, the real MLK would be just one more civil rights leader fading from the memory of society at large. It is because he has been erected into an unchallengeable symbol of the successful struggle for harmonious race relations that some of the more contentious parts of his legacy will be publicly chewed over for decades to come.
In the case of Nelson Mandela, there’s not much whitewash necessary. No, he was not a Gandhian pacifist. Yes, he joined the Communist Party. Unfortunately, he was overly loyal to old comrades in arms. Let those who object to his anointing be beaten into submission. Let the whitewashed statues be erected. This will keep him and his real legacy alive.