What sets Nelson Mandela apart from other revolutionary leaders, whose cause he once shared, is what he did after taking power.

When Nelson Mandela died aged 95 on 5 December 2013, world leaders rushed to pay tribute to him. Of course, it did not go unnoticed, in social or traditional media, that this included many who had once been less enthusiastic about his cause.

Some of this opposition was ideological. When Mandela was released in 1990, Margaret Thatcher’s conviction that he was a communist was reinforced when in his speech he praised the South African Communist Party (SACP). She feared that the African National Congress (ANC) was a revolutionary socialist organisation that wanted to destroy South Africa’s capitalist economy. This sentiment was shared by many on the right of the Conservative Party. Mandela was branded a terrorist because of his armed struggle, and a communist because the Soviet Union supported the ANC and the SACP was a strong domestic ally. Ronald Reagan said in 1981 that the apartheid regime was ‘strategically essential to the free world’, and in 1985 vetoed a bipartisan bill to impose sanctions on the regime; Dick Cheney was among Reagan’s supporters on this issue. Cheney has since said he does not regret his position, but went on to call Mandela ‘a great man’.

But as late as 2003, Dave Kopel wrote in the National Review that Mandela’s anti-American stance on the Iraq War issue ‘should come as no surprise, given his long-standing dedication to Communism and praise for terrorists’.

In the days following his death, it became clear that his evolution from shepherd to student, lawyer, terrorist, prisoner, politician and, finally, global elder statesman had – by near-universal consensus – earned him a place on the right side of history. New York magazine noted that the phrase ‘the wrong side of history’ is overused – applied to everything from opposition to same-sex marriage to musicians resisting technological change – but it is apt in this case. Mandela’s memorial service rivalled that of Winston Churchill or John F. Kennedy, drawing an array of world leaders that included Cuban President Raúl Castro and US President Barack Obama.

Some US conservatives, among them Newt Gingrich and Ted Cruz, also wrote tributes. Cruz’s statement drew vitriolic criticism on his Facebook page, and Gingrich was surprised that he had to defend his description of Mandela as a great leader. Many American critics invoke the statement of support Mandela made for Fidel Castro, Muammar Gadhafi and Yassir Arafat in 1990.

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Alexa van Sickle is an Assistant Editor at the IISS.

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Survival: Global Politics and Strategy

February-March 2014

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