Amid the orgy of international lamentation that has followed the death of Nelson Mandela on December 5, 2013, the question is whether he possessed some or all of the superhuman qualities that have been attributed to him. He has been described variously in the South African media as “the greatest man that has ever walked this earth,” a visionary, an inspiration, a reconciler, a Solomon, and a saint. Can the assumptions underlying this hagiography possibly be true?

Peter Bruce, the editor in chief of Business Day, wrote that the most remarkable quality that Mandela possessed was his unfailing judgment. Shortly before the 1994 elections, Mandela proposed that the franchise be extended to all 14-year-olds. Some may doubt his judgment on that account alone, but there are other, more compelling reasons for disagreement on this issue.

It is now 14 years since Mandela left office, and it is no doubt true that distance lends enchantment to the view. It is also true that a determination to not be enchanted may corrupt the view. To avoid any suggestion of cynicism, the issues dealt with in this note are based not on current opinions, but on contemporaneous records of the facts that emerged during Mandela's presidency. The information relied upon is contained in a book written by me and published in 1998 under the title One Miracle Is Not Enough. The book is fully referenced and indexed for purposes of verification. In some cases, extensive quotes will be taken from the book.

To demonstrate a singular failure of judgment, reference must first be had to what has come to be known as the “Shell House Incident.”

“On 28 March 1994, a month before South Africa's first democratic elections, when it was clear that Mr. Mandela was to be the country's new president, a singular event occurred. The predominantly Zulu Inkatha Freedom Party had arranged a political rally, to be held in central Johannesburg on that day. Supporters converged from various directions. One such group proceeded, according to the tradition of the Zulu impi and with, no doubt, a degree of premeditated provocation, past the Shell House headquarters of its arch-rival, the ANC. Outside this building a shooting occurred. No-one seems to know who shot first. IFP supporters contend that they were marching in a peaceful procession when, without provocation, gunmen from Shell House fired upon them. The occupants of Shell House swear that if they had not answered aggression with aggression, they would have been mercilessly cut down. The judicial inquest appointed to investigate the matter, some three years after the event, was unable, decisively, to resolve the dispute. President Mandela did, however, admit that he had given the order to fire in self-defence.

“When the shooting died down, eight Zulus lay dead and dying in the streets surrounding Shell House. Policemen were dispatched to the ANC headquarters to investigate the incident. The policemen were met at the building by Mr. Mandela, who refused them access to the premises. At that stage it is probable that those who had fired the fatal shots were still in the building. Firearms were almost certainly still to be found and ballistic tests would with equal certainty have linked some of the firearms to the deaths. Eye-witnesses would have been able to shed light on the question of whether the initial aggression had occurred from within or without the building. All of these were crucial issues upon which any subsequent prosecution would depend for its success. As subsequent events have demonstrated, delay was certain to complicate and possibly even completely frustrate any future prosecution.

“Recognising who they were dealing with, the police, under the command of Witwatersrand police commissioner Lieutenant-General Koos Calitz, withdrew from Shell House. In doing so they abandoned their responsibility. One must, however, have some sympathy for General Calitz. How was he to defy the man whom everybody knew was already in all but name the president of South Africa? What repercussions, nationally and internationally, might this policeman trigger if, as the law required, he arrested Mandela for the obstruction of policemen in the exercise of their duty, called in reinforcements, and forced his way into Shell House? Calitz would have been justified in concluding that he might be the instrument of triggering the civil war that the politicians had thus far managed to avoid. It was not Calitz who was at fault on that day; it was Mandela, acting as though he was above the law, who had violated the first principle of the rule of law…” (Pages 26-29)

In May 1997, Mandela traveled to Zimbabwe on an official state visit. Shortly before his arrival in that benighted country, he had made some disparaging remarks about the “white controlled” media in South Africa. Even in the time of apartheid, the South African media was a paragon of virtue in comparison to the repressed media under Robert Mugabe. In the presence of his Zimbabwean host, Mandela repeated his catalogue of mortification on the issue of the ownership of the South African press.

“The occasion chosen by Mandela for his public criticism of the South African media could hardly have been less appropriate. It was at the end of a three-day state visit to Zimbabwe, whose president has mercilessly persecuted the free press and whose government has set up a state-controlled press to provide the nation with what President Mugabe and his government want them to hear. According to the journalist Dianna Gomes, Mandela's intemperate comments were well received by his Zimbabwean counterpart. 'The state-owned media took this as confirmation that newspapers that criticise presidents get what they deserve.'

“It is an unfortunate fact that Mandela is prone to political hyperbole and extravagant praise of undeserving African political figures. The occasion when, attempting to broker peace in Zaire, he described President Mobutu Sese Seko and the pretender to that sullied throne, Laurent Kabila, as 'two of the greatest sons of Africa,' will long be recalled for its grotesque, if unintended, parody.

“The same lack of discrimination was evident during Mandela's state visit to Zimbabwe. Those who had expected him to lecture Harare's despotic rulers on the virtues of democracy were acutely disappointed. Instead he was lavish in his praise for his hosts and blamed instead the 'embittered' South African ownership of the press for the bad publicity they received in South Africa. What were the facts? A few weeks before Mandela's arrival in Zimbabwe, the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace had released information which implicated Mugabe and his associates in a 1980s campaign of mass murder and destruction in Matabeleland in an attempt to institute a one party state. There was also the emerging scandal about presidential intervention in the award of a licence for a cellular phone service… In addition it had recently been disclosed that an amount of R200 million budgeted for those wounded during the Zimbabwean war had been looted by senior functionaries within the ruling Zanu-PF party. Was Mandela unaware of these things, and of the authoritarian rule of his host, as he showered praises upon Mugabe and his unworthy comrades?” (Pages 179-180)

Nelson Mandela was the only individual with both the personal and tactical authority (as the first democratically elected president) to have set an unerring example for incorruptible government. His failure to have done so is the singular failure of his administration. Like his successors, he failed to act against corrupt and incompetent cabinet ministers and government officials, and the result is that South Africa has now become one of the most corrupt “democracies” in the world.

Three examples are given here. In 1996, there was the Sarafina scandal, a scandal involving government funds for pals authorized by health minister Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, who is now the president of the African Union. In April 1997, it was revealed that the deputy speaker of parliament, Baleka Mbete-Kgositsile, had acquired a fraudulent driver's license. When confronted with the allegation, she was unrepentant. She was a very busy person, she proclaimed. She had a job in Cape Town and a constituency in Kwa-Zulu and so many children “scattered all over the country” that she did not have time to stand in queues. In March 1997, the minister of justice, Dullah Omar (of whom a senior advocate once said that his two brothers were probably named Dull and Dullest), led a special welcome-home gathering at the airport for returning fraud suspect Allan Boesak, who was at the time one of the ANC's favorite sons. Omar even suggested a possible defense that Boesak might raise to the charges against him. The suggestion was to no avail, because Boesak was subsequently convicted and imprisoned on various counts of fraud and theft, involving R8.8 million.

These government functionaries and others should have been shown the door by any president who aspired to clean administration. None was.

Nelson Mandela undoubtedly had many very fine qualities; foremost amongst them was his commitment to non-racialism, as well as his unaffected humanity. His personal assistant for much of the time from the date of his release from prison until the time of his death was an Afrikaans girl, Zelda la Grange, who adored her employer and referred to him as her grandfather. His principal security officer was another (white) Afrikaner, who credited Mandela with having cured him of the racialist beliefs that had blighted his person from childhood. Mandela's “grand gesture” when he attended the Rugby World Cup finals at Ellis Park in the number 8 rugby jersey (the same number as that of the South African rugby captain, Francois Pienaar—another Afrikaner) and inspired the team to win the match with New Zealand against the odds with a last-minute drop goal by Joel Stransky (a Jew) was, it subsequently turned out, not merely a grand gesture. His sincerity on these issues cannot now be doubted and is assured by his actual conduct, both within and outside the office of president.