at 79, Nelson Mandela still appears physically and mentally robust, with wise white hair, an easy smile and upright posture that confers regal dignity. When he enters a room, you feel a magisterial presence. The masses revere him. World leaders jostle to be photographed next to him. They listen studiously to the words that flow in his clipped, African-accented English. A few years ago at the United Nations, following Mandela's request that sanctions against South Africa be lifted, a man standing near me touched Mandela's shoulder, then stared at his own hand with a look of wonder: "I just touched the greatest man in the world," he said.
Mandela has earned such reverence. After 27 years in jail, he led a remarkably peaceful transition to democracy in South Africa. He initiated a Truth and Reconciliation Committee whose purpose was to expose apartheid's injustice, without the aim of retribution, so that his country could purge itself and move forward. Though one may argue with the outcome -- and the progress that the new South Africa has achieved -- Mandela has undertaken a remarkably generous and farsighted attempt at healing a nation.
Which makes it all the more dismaying to see photographs of this great man embracing one of the world's most loathsome, Libyan leader Col. Moammar Gadhafi. Calling him "my brother leader," Mandela ignored the U.N. boycott of Gadhafi in retaliation for harboring two Libyans suspected in the 1988 Lockerbie bombing. In Tripoli last week, Mandela rejected U.S. criticism of his visit. "Those who say I should not be here are without morals," he declared. "I am not going to join them in their lack of morality." Of Gadhafi, he said, "This man helped us at a time when we were all alone."
As disturbing as Mandela's remarks may be, they are not really surprising. Mandela has repeatedly demonstrated strident loyalty to those who supported him in what South Africans refer to as "the Struggle" against apartheid. In addition to Gadhafi, Yasir Arafat, Fidel Castro and a dream team of late 20th century villains have basked in the great man's glow.
At the same time, for a man who appears to be the very epitome of human rights, he is enigmatic at best on the subject. For almost seven years following his release from prison, he begged off of human rights issues elsewhere in Africa, saying he had matters to attend to within South Africa itself. It was an ironic position for a man who had relied so heavily on international activism, especially on a continent so badly in need of moral guidance. Mandela's stepping onto the international stage came about only late last year after urging by Daniel Arap-Moi, the heavy-handed Kenyan leader whose prisons teem with political opponents and whose human rights record is no better than the government that imprisoned Mandela.
Mandela has also shown, in brief glimpses, a residue of bitterness toward those whom he believes did not support him loudly enough. A few days after the 1993 U.N. address, I was one of five reporters invited to meet him at his hotel in New York. I asked Mandela whether the U.S. investors he was courting would have any guarantees that their money was safe from nationalization, a policy that communists in his African National Congress had yet to repudiate. An offended Mandela lectured me on how it was communists, not Americans, who were in the vanguard in the fight against apartheid, and Americans had no right to expect him to denounce them.
But how does one explain last week's photo-op with an outcast like Gadhafi? Is Mandela losing his political touch -- or was the move shrewdly calculated? By thumbing his nose at the U.S. and the U.K., he asserted South Africa's independence while repaying old political debts. Perhaps he also considered the fact that people in the West have short memories and that, in any case, he has so many faithful followers, he could afford to spend a day being the bad guy. By couching the visit in personal terms, he avoided committing South Africa to Libya.
Such calculation may be savvy enough, but can't be very comforting to the families of the Lockerbie victims. In Mandela's case, it also qualifies as a foolish misuse of his hard-earned moral power. Gadhafi hopes the South African's embrace will uplift him in the world's eyes. For those looking for an excuse to resume business relations with the terrorist state, it may be just enough to get him over the bar.
We live in a time when great people, willfully or through lack of will, tarnish their reputations through acts of stupidity. By hugging Gadhafi, Mandela showed that he is indeed a man, not a saint, of our times.