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Was Nelson Mandela a Bad Man?

December 6, 2013


The historian Lord Acton wrote that ”power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. But his less-known, follow on sentence was: “Great men are almost always bad men..’

Did Nelson Mandela fall into Acton’s category? Clearly he was a great man, but was he also a bad man? Amnesty International could not give him their Prisoner of Conscience award in 1962 – though he did receive its Ambassador of Conscience Award in 2006 – because he had instigated the African National Congress into  violent action as a strategy and had became leader of a terrorist group called UmKhonto we Sizwe.   

This resulted in indiscriminate public bombings similar to those carried out by the IRA in Northern Ireland during the troubles, including the Church Street bombing in Johannesburg on 20 May 1983 which killed 19 people and mutilated 217 others of every race, gender and age. 

What are we to make of this in the light of the global admiration for a great man following his death yesterday?   Was he the saint he is being portrayed as, or was Lord Acton right in saying that greatness entails badness?

I think the problem here is the language we use to categorize individuals as if they are like whales swimming an ocean, each easily classified as black or white, big or small, weak or strong.

In fact,  the brains which underlie our individuality are more akin to swarms of jellyfish, drifting on tides  and currents over which they have little control, and subject to division and scattering at the whim of the sea.  And as this happens, essentially we become different people. 

Greatness, I would argue, comes when an individual manages somehow to harness the jellyfish brain to make a decision or takes an action that defies the direction of the tide.  Through acting, the person is changed into a different person – into a different formation of jellyfish – but perhaps with a greater shape to it, or a changed direction. 

I remember asking a friend and colleague who is a very experienced psychotherapist whether she thought that she had ever damaged any of her patients during her therapy. Without reflection, and with more than a touch of prickliness, she responded “no, of course not”.

 I was rather shocked by her answer, even dismayed. If something is powerful enough to do good, then inevitably it must occasionally harm also. No-one is perfect, mistakes must always happen. What surgeon can claim never to have damaged a patient by a surgical error? 

I can think of cases where the decisions I took as a clinical psychologist were damaging to my patients. What shocked me about my colleague’s response was her ego-protective, almost visceral, response to preserve her sense of “goodness” and competence.

 I know that not being able to “get over” her own ego distorted her relationships with patients and I know that this diluted the good she could do to many as well as blind her to the inevitable bad that she inadvertently inflicted on a few. 

Of course Nelson Mandela did bad things but describing him as a ‘bad man’ in Lord Acton’s terms does not really make sense because Nelson Mandela is only in name the same man as the one who was sentenced on the 12 June 1964 to life imprisonment.  

Most of the cells in his body were replaced several times over, and the 100 trillion synapses – meeting points between two brain cells – were in constant turmoil and flux throughout his life.  

So of course, in some sense of the word, Nelson Mandela was a “bad man”, just as he was a good – a great – man also. Human beings are in a state of constant biological and psychological change and such is the complexity of our brains and our social networks that we can never avoid doing bad, some of us more than others.

The bigger the decisions we take, the greater the chance that we may do great bad as well as great good – this is the rough calculus of greatness – and in that sense Lord Acton was right.

What for me most makes Mandela such a great man is how he managed to steer his jellyfish against one of the strongest tides in the psychological ocean – bitterness at wrongs done to a person and the resulting visceral desire for revenge. 

Defence of the ego lies behind such bitterness and defending the ego has caused more harm and badness in the world than almost anything else. 

Nelson Mandela taught the world that it is possible to transcend the ego and achieve a kind of liberation from the prison of self. In doing this, he transmuted into a different creature, definitely great and mostly good: but things are simply too complex for there never to be any bad. 









10 Comments leave one →
  1. December 6, 2013 1:22 pm

    Ok, let’s see if I get it: Nelson Mandela was a communist, a terrorist assassin and a corrupt and failed politician who turned the old thriving South Africa into the living Hell it is right now.

    But he’s african and he’s among the Left’s idolized saints so… we have to find, somehow, not matter how convoluted and absurd, some mumbo-jumbish way to keep him in the altar. Trillions of re-wiring synapses. Cells replaced several times over.

    Because, you know, he was communist, and bold and black. He’s cool.

    It’s curious, but you will never hear such reasonings applied to people usually considered “on the Right”. Ne-ver. Specially those awful white males. Glups!

    Funny, isn’t it?

    I think Voltaire was the one who said: “if you wanna know who are your true masters, just wonder who are the ones you are not allowed to criticize”. Or something like that.

    The massas have been the BoBos for quite some time. Plutocracy plus Cultural Marxism.

    Time to go and buy some Mandela’s t-shirts.

  2. Jen permalink
    December 7, 2013 4:41 am

    In order to accomplish great things, people prioritize their causes and themselves. Egotism leads to effectiveness. It also leads to treating those immediately around you – your family – like garbage, and valuing yourself and your own cause above the lives and happiness of others. Sometimes we need great things accomplished. But that doesn’t make those people good. If they did bad things, those things should be brought to light too, because the little people, the women and children they hurt and ignored, mattered too, and maybe if we all treated our own families better and followed our obligations as members of society, we wouldn’t need so many “great men” as politicians to redress the wrongs of our society, which are really the collective egotism of people who think of themselves as greater and more important than others.

  3. Henry permalink
    January 6, 2014 1:18 pm

    Surely this article has no direction and meaning. Clearly if Nelson Mandela killed 1000 whites in the so clamed bombings I think they deserved it. He had to liberate his people . Non of the whites was innocent . They came from Europe and stole, raped, killed and even oppressed the owners of the land.

    I ask “I a murderer walks into your house with all evil intentions , what would you do” Nelson Mandela was a is and will always be a hero”

    After reading the article, I am very sure the author is not a native African.

    • gary permalink
      February 12, 2014 6:14 pm

      Henry says Mandela killed a 1000 whites who deserved to die. Does that include the 40000 who have been murdered since 1994? Here is food for thought. Between 1989 to 1994 15000 blacks died as a result of anc terror ie black on black marxist style intimidation. Guess how many people died between 1994 to 2000 under mandala rule. 140000. But then again henry and co have their head up their……

    • EvilWhiteMan permalink
      February 25, 2014 7:06 am

      White people deserve to die? Wow. What an astoundingly ignorant statement. I guess blacks deserve to die for selling there fellow man into slavery. As well as owning slaves themselves. I guess black people deserve to die for the daily rape and murder that takes place in inner cities.

  4. StrongAndEqualOne permalink
    February 26, 2014 12:20 pm

    okay some did deserve that/to die but others didn’t because of whites and the whites didn’t deserve it either but the whole point is that Nelson Mandela is a powerful and strong African-American. Now you guys need to put away your pitty childish ways and come to realization that anyone/body can make a change it may cause harm but still good. and this is coming from a 12 yr old girl.

    • TheKnowerseeker permalink
      July 18, 2014 3:56 pm

      Mandela was not an African-*American*; he was an African; and if your black family had been blown up by one of his terror attacks, you would not be singing his praises now.

  5. ilikepie permalink
    February 13, 2015 8:14 pm

    He supported communism because communist nations helped South Africa fight against Apartheid


  1. Mandela Hagiography — LimbicNutrition Weblog

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