The notable side of Nelson Mandela wasn't forgiveness. It was action

If he had been just a kindly chap, nobody outside his family would have noticed

I wonder if it was like this 2,000 years ago. If it was, when Jesus died, Pontius Pilate would have appeared on Sky News moments after the cross was taken down and said, “The world mourns today a man of great integrity. It was an honour to have known him, and even when I sentenced him to crucifixion, he showed great forgiveness, and that shows what a great figure he was.”

On the BBC the newsreader would say “With me here is one of his closest associates. Judas, what memories do you have of Jesus?” And Judas would say he always displayed dignity and humility, and most importantly forgave those that betrayed him, and finish with an amusing anecdote, about how pernickety he could be about which bread to break at supper.

On Radio 5 live the moneylenders at the temple would say he was a heroic figure, who may have thrown over the moneylenders’ tables in the temple, but said he was sorry for the mess that was caused, which is the main thing, then every newspaper would tell us that “tributes have flooded in from across the Roman Empire, led by King Herod who said ‘It is a sad day for Nazareth, and a sad day for Rome’.”

Many of the official tributes to Nelson Mandela, such as the one from David Cameron, have emphasised his ability to forgive, and his apparent rejection of bitterness is part of what made him extraordinary. But the reason his capacity for forgiveness towards the rulers of apartheid mattered, was that he’d organised opposition to it, took up arms against it and overthrew it. If he hadn’t, if his notable side was forgiveness, he would simply have been a kindly chap who’d passed away with no one outside his family taking much notice.

Few people now defend apartheid, but someone must have liked it at the time or it wouldn’t have been such a nuisance to destroy. Margaret Thatcher, idol of many who made tributes to Mandela, bragged with a fervour that actually made her look drunk, that she’d rejected sanctions against the regime, as the ANC was a “typical terrorist organisation.” Many sportsmen and musicians broke the boycott, repeating the sentiments of Denis Thatcher who said “we play our rugby where we like”. There were the ‘Hang Mandela’ t-shirts, and countless commentators and politicians who belittled the demonstrations and boycotts.  

I visited Robben Island prison, where Mandela had been incarcerated, in 2003. To get my ticket I visited an office in Cape Town, with glossy posters on the wall, covered in flowery lower case jolly African writing, exclaiming that your trip to South Africa wasn’t complete without taking the unique opportunity of a trip to the famous island. I got on a catamaran with Americans and Germans, who smothered themselves in sun cream and took pictures of each other as they held out their arms and giggled.

Had they turned the prison into a theme park, I wondered, maybe with a water-canon-slide, and a helter skelter shaped like a giant Desmond Tutu?

But tours of the prisons are conducted by ex-prisoners. As we wandered round the cells our guide explained how he and fellow convicts had been allotted different amounts of bread according to their race, and how they were made to work 16 hours a day on the land. “One day”, he said, “As I was digging, on the day of the month my father was due to visit, a guard called my name. I stood before him on that spot there and he said ‘Your father won’t be visiting today as he’s been shot. Now get back to work’.”

His father survived the shooting, it turned out, but never walked again, and the guide told us the three responsible for the attempted murder were free under the rules of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee, and were now wealthy businessmen.