The death of Nelson Mandela: We all love him now, but it wasn't always so

The stampede of pundits to express a view about the man cheapens his remarkable achievements – and makes false heroes of the politically inert

One useful test of whether a remark is meaningful is to ask whether anyone is saying the opposite. It would be a brave public figure who declared their hostility to hardworking families, who self-defined as an enemy of hope and change. These banalities are easy politics, but they are not substantial. Words can have the power and status of actions, but only if there is an opposing idea for them to act upon. If not, however well-chosen they might be, their virtue is mainly a matter of aesthetics.

So we have been reminded in the aftermath of Nelson Mandela's death. It is not that the tributes have failed to strike the right note, or even done some good: a self-evident truth can have real force if it is well expressed. But when the phrase "secular saint" pops up on your social network for the 17th time in the day, you are entitled to wonder if the person posting it really felt that it was an important addition to the remembrance.

There were endless examples of this sort of thing – the PR effort, including such missives as the one I got claiming Mandela as "the world's most celebrated prisoner distance learner", is utterly crass – but I was particularly struck by one tweet from Louise Mensch as the world came to terms with the news: "It's absolutely right that David Cameron is to fly the flag at half-staff for Mandela," she noted. What's so funny about this is the tone it strikes of bloody-minded defiance. If a petition was going round demanding that we keep our Union flags at the very top of the pole, I suppose it might have been something other than vapid, but with no such campaign afoot it was a little difficult to see the point.

While it isn't particularly edifying to use the passing of one of the great leaders of the 20th century as a means of making yourself look good, it may not seem as if a lot of harm is done. But the piling on is more than just tasteless. Remember: there was a time when the bandwagon had rather fewer occupants. In the 1980s, the idea that Nelson Mandela was a hero was not a truism, but a controversial political stance that, if you were a politician, could damage your career. People change, but we are entitled to look askance at those who only side with Mandela now that it costs them nothing to do so.

Consider the Prime Minister. It's good that he sees fit to fly the flag at half mast today, certainly, but there's no record of him speaking out against apartheid when his words might have counted for something; instead, the only visible evidence of his position in South Africa is the all-expenses paid visit he made in 1989 under the auspices of an anti-sanctions lobby group.

When a biography of David Cameron (co-written by The Independent on Sunday's James Hanning) reported this four years ago, Cameron's office described the trip as a "fact-finding mission", a usefully deadening phrase. Unfortunately, the man who had been his Conservative Central Office boss at the time, Alistair Cooke, disagreed. To Cooke, it was "simply a jolly… just a little treat, a perk of the job".

Of course, none of this is the same as wearing badges urging the South African authorities to "hang Mandela", a Conservative student wheeze which – contrary to online rumour – Cameron had nothing at all to do with. (It is very hard to find anyone who will admit a connection. Paul Staines, the blogger better known as Guido Fawkes, once admitted to hanging out with people who wore the stickers; he dutifully retweeted The Sun's tribute on Friday.) With a godfather like Tim Rathbone, the staunchly anti-apartheid Conservative MP, Cameron may privately have been a firm supporter of Mandela. But as Rathbone would have understood, when the moral question is as unambiguous as apartheid was, passivity is shameful in its own right. And the change in attitude may tell us something about the depth of the PM's commitment.

Lord Hughes, a Labour peer who as plain Robert Hughes was one of those who did speak out, and act, against apartheid, put it well in the Cameron biography: "It is almost impossible now to find anyone who wasn't against apartheid," he said. "I wish there were as many opposed to it then as say they were now."

Mr Cameron is far from alone. It's nice that Geoffrey Boycott and Graham Gooch observed the minute's silence at the cricket in Adelaide, but it's a pity that in the 1980s they weighed their respect for Mandela and his cause against a £50,000 payment for participation in a rebel tour and chose the money.

"Death of a Colossus", read the Daily Mail front page on Friday. In the 1980s, it opposed the boycott of the apartheid regime and published articles supporting Mandela's continued imprisonment, insisting that the ANC were nothing more than terrorists.

Now the Mail describes Mandela as a man who "taught the world the meaning of forgiveness". It's striking that in the revisionist history that erases the many times that Mandela and his cause needed support and did not find it, the depiction of him usually follows this shape: sees him not as a man of unbending principle who defeated a racist system, who was prepared to contemplate the use of force to do it – but as a man who let everyone off the hook.

This is fine, as far as it goes, and there is no question that his transcendent ability to forgive is at the very heart of his greatness. But if this is the only version of Mandela we are allowed to praise, he and his work are made trivial. To cast him as a cuddly grandpa who wore funny shirts and wished we could all just get along elides the true gravity of the injustice he sought to overturn.

Since we are all united in our admiration now, perhaps we can agree to let the man himself have the last word. "You can Kennedy-ise my name," he was once quoted as saying. "But not Disney-ise it."

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