12/06/2013 11:31 am ET | Updated Feb 05, 2014

People Used To Write Some Startling Things About Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela's death has brought with it fulsome tributes from all ends of the political spectrum. He has been revered as a saint, and a symbol of freedom.

Yet the canonization of Mandela is a relatively recent thing. History has a way of smoothing over old divisions, of allowing certain things to be forgotten. And Mandela was a fiercely controversial figure for most of his life, a man who, despite the circumstances he was living in, attracted condemnation in many circles for his refusal to renounce armed struggle and for his continued embrace of his communist allies. This led to some punditry that looks shocking today, but was par for the course in the years before apartheid was abolished.

It is inconceivable, for instance, to think of a titan of conservatism today writing the words William F. Buckley wrote in a 1985 edition of National Review: "Where Mandela belongs, in his current frame of mind, is precisely where he is: in jail." Mandela had been in prison for 22 years.

"We should, every now and then, draw back a bit and ask ourselves the question: What are we doing, trying to
fine-tune the evolution of South African domestic policies?" Buckley added.

The Wall Street Journal editorial board had similar thoughts in a 1985 piece, which dubbed Mandela the "nominal leader of the Marxist-tinged African National Congress" and concluded, "The dangers of imposing morality on places that our demonstrators and politicians scarcely understand is a lesson, we should have thought, that might have been earned from Iran."

It was not uncommon to see views about the "progress" South Africa was making expressed in articles like the one that appeared in Human Events magazine in 1985, where author Allan Brownfeld wrote that the country was "in a state of constant change" and "moving slowly in the right direction."

Mandela's African National Congress party has hardly been immune to criticism in the years since it assumed power in South Africa, but many do not remember how reviled the ANC was in some corners during the 1980s.

In an op-ed for the New York Times in 1986, for instance, John Silber, the then-president of Boston University, denounced the ANC and said it could never be a credible governing party.

"When Americans demand that the South African Government share power with the African National Congress, they demand power-sharing with an organization committed to terror, oppression and poverty," he wrote. "The blacks of South Africa will not find a better life under an A.N.C. dictatorship."

Mandela's staunch defense of Palestinians also attracted considerable criticism from columnists like the New York Times' A.M. Rosenthal, who called it "chilling" in a 1990 piece.


Nelson Mandela 1918-2013