“But I don’t see why everyone seems to have forgotten that he was a communist,” Mr. Bates was saying. “Sorry if I can’t join the party.”
“I think it’s a little foolish of us to assume that a man was exactly the same when he was young and angry as when he was old and presumably wiser,” Mr Magundi replied. “But no matter; I agree that the tributes of the past couple of days have mostly missed the point. The single thing that made Mandela a great hero, the George Washington of his country, was the fact that, when he died, he was not president. It would have been terribly easy for him to say to himself, ‘At this time of transition and crisis, the country needs strong and stable leadership. It is necessary for the good of the people that I should remain as their leader.’ Like George Washington, he must have seen with absolute clarity that, if he stepped aside, he would be succeeded by a pack of the usual political idiots. How could George Washington look ahead to a Jefferson administration with anything but dread? How could Mandela sit still for Mbeki?
“Yet, when the decision came, he was wise enough to see that the democratic principle was more important in the long run than the question of which idiots would be elected in the short run. He could have been Fidel Castro or Robert Mugabe, but instead he decided to be Cincinnatus.
“Our own Washington had plenty of less-than-admirable qualities. He was a greedy real-estate speculator; he could be imperious and aloof; his administration was full of bickering. Even as a general he was perhaps more lucky than clever. But he proved that he loved his country more than he loved power. Nelson Mandela did the same, and he will be remembered the way Washington is remembered. And his faults deserve the same sympathetic oblivion we grant to Washington’s.”