Obama compares Nelson Mandela with George Washington
President Obama, in speaking of critically ill former South African President Nelson Mandela, compared his stepping down as president of South Africa after one term to George Washington.
Later, when asked about his policy toward Africa, Obama again returned to Mandela.
"Mandela shows what was possible when a priority is placed on human dignity, respect for law, that all people are treated equally," Obama said.
"And what Nelson Mandela also stood for is that the well-being of the country is more important than the interests of any one person," Obama continued. "George Washington is admired because after two terms he said enough, I'm going back to being a citizen. There were no term limits, but he said I'm a citizen. I served my time. And it's time for the next person, because that's what democracy is about. And Mandela similarly was able to recognize that, despite how revered he was, that part of this transition process was greater than one person."
At the joint press conference, President Zuma offered an update on Mandela's health -- saying there has been no change in his health but that he hopes he will be able to leave the hospital soon.
"The position of former president Mandela, he remains critical but stable," Zuma said. "Nothing has changed so far. We are hoping that he is going to improve. With all the prayers and good wishes that have been made, everyone is wishing Mandela well. The doctors who are tending to him are doing everything -- these are excellent doctors. We hope that very soon, he will be out of hospital."
There is no doubt that Nelson Mandela is a world-historical figure. The transition in South Africa to black rule was relatively bloodless thanks largely to both Mandela and De Klerk who formed a govermment following elections. Mandela made De Clerk deputy president thus reassuring whites that their interests would be represented at the highest levels of government.
But the comparison to Washington is bogus. Washington stepped down voluntarily after two terms while Mandela gradually lost power over his term in office and was eased out the leadership position by rivals in the African National Congress in 1997. While he left voluntarily, it was hardly the self-abnegation practiced by Washington as the Federalists begged him to run again in 1796.
And there were some missteps made by Mandela, including an effort before the election to lower the voting age from 18 to 14. And the new constitution passed in 1996 was not protective of minorities, which caused De Klerk to resign. By that time, however, the transition to black rule was complete and whites had accepted the fact that apartheid was dead.
Mandela will no doubt be euoligzed as a great hero. Certainly, there are aspects to his life that were, indeed, heroic for which he should receive recognition. But his association with Communists and terrorists in the ANC should also be remembered. It may be that blacks were so oppressed that they had no choice but to fight to change the abominable apartheid system. But there were many sins committed in the ANC's name and as leader of the organization, Mandela was responsible.
Like all great men, a mixed legacy to be sure.