Nelson Mandela was no saint. He is every bit the ‘Great Man’ which posterity will assign him to be. But his greatness comes not from being without blemish, but from redeeming himself from his blemishes, and there were thousands. For most of his life, he was a militant, a fellow traveler to Communist brutality, a leader who advocated violence and had underlings who practiced it with what can only be termed ‘tacit consent.’ He was a man of his time and circumstance, and like all of us, did what he felt was right, and did so in a situation that was already morally compromised in the extreme.
Even today, Mandela is thought of by many South African blacks as a capitulator - a man who betrayed his own cause by preventing the perpetrators of apartheid from being brought to justice, and enabled South African whites to maintain their privilege. But the alternative to Mandela’s reconciliation was Civil War. Back in 1994, many liberals were still scared of what a President Mandela might do. He was a hero for what he endured, but he was not yet ‘Nelson Mandela.’ For a long time, he was no Martin Luther King, he was not unlike Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Russian who bravely told truth to the tyrannical power of the Soviet Union at extreme personal risk, all the while motivated by an extreme nationalist ideology of a different type. When brought to power, he could easily have become a Mugabe, who would create a puppet democracy with a newly empowered black population given weapons so they could murder thousands at his bidding. Instead, he managed a transition from a particularly loathesome semi-democracy to a full, and peaceful democracy, in which whites and blacks (and Indians) all had a shot at opportunity. How many leaders of newly empowered peoples, from Mugabe, to Arafat, to Khomeini, to Castro, can we set against Mandela's example? How many disappointed the world by proving just as corrupt and tyrannical, if not moreso, than the leaders they overthrew?
However extreme Mandela once was, it can’t be denied that Apartheid was an unambiguous moral stain built atop older unambiguous moral stains, brought upon South Africa not out of fear of civil war, or threats to national security, but out of the same perverted racial ideology which pervaded so much of the world during the Imperial Age. It was a compromise made to preserve a privileged Dutch (Afrikaaner) and British class which should never have been allowed to immigrate to South Africa in the first place; its richest citizens afraid of losing their privilege for more than a hundred-fifty years after slavery was abolished by the British Empire in 1833.
America has many of its own terrible blemishes which should keep any American who’s ever been interested in politics up late at night, and many worse than Apartheid itself. Such is the price of living in the Real World, in which moral compromise is an unavoidable state of being in its best days. Were the entirety of America’s actions in the third world justified? Certainly not. There is absolutely no justification for providing assistance to mass murderers like Suharto or Seko, who senselessly killed hundreds of thousands with brutality comparable to the worst of Soviet and Soviet backed dictatorships (from the ranks of which, one must admit, there was a far greater number comparable mass murderers). Actions like the support of a Pinochet, a Mubarak, a Chiang Kai-Shek, are severely grey even if they were done for the most prudent reasons (and there’s often reason to doubt that…).
Was there a way to combat the prospect of Communist dictatorship in third-world countries without supporting right-wing opposition which was barely less militant? There is no way of knowing, but not even Franklin Roosevelt, the most liberal president until Barack Obama, was willing to engender that level of risk. The only one who was was Jimmy Carter in who allowed the Sha of Iran to be replaced with Ayatollah Khomeni, and part of the result was the Iran-Iraq War, which killed well over a million people. Was the United States wrong to back the Apartheid government of South Africa? In an absolute sense, absolutely. But the world is a strange, complex place. Don't be quite so quick to judge American leaders who supported the South African regime with 100% condemnation, which included not only Reagan but every president from Truman until him, including Lyndon Johnson, without whom American civil rights for blacks would still be languishing far more than they still are. There are very few cases like Mandela’s African National Congress, in which a Soviet-backed organization turned out to be a force for freedom. Had Mandela been elected a few years earlier when the Soviet Union still existed, perhaps the story would have necessarily turned out quite differently if the Soviet Union demanded that he install a Soviet foothold in South Africa. Against Mandela, one has to set hundreds of examples to the contrary. That Mandela turned out to be different from so many other communist allies only adds enormous stature to his greatness, but no sane person could have predicted he was as towering a man as he was.