I heard an Irish priest on the radio this morning stating, matter-of-factly, that Nelson Mandela was undoubtedly the greatest leader the world has seen in the past 75 years, or probably long before that. That'll be greater than Churchill, then, without whom the world might have sunk into a new Dark Age. He added that he was the most remarkable human being he had ever personally met - Mother Theresa would be second, "but a definite second". That's quite something for a Roman Catholic priest to admit, and John Paul II didn't even get a look in.
The cleric isn't alone, of course. Rock-stars old and young, actors revered and reviled, business-leaders, princes and presidents all want a piece of the Madiba action. So do discredited politicians. They want to be blessed by his touch, justified, made whole, like the scrofula sufferers who once yearned for the healing touch of a king. There are some, it's true, who genuflect with almost equal devotion at the feet of the Dalai Lama. But Tenzing Gyatso is a reincarnated god-king, whose aura comes drenched in mystic wisdom of the orient. Mandela is a self-made divinity. "It is funny to see Hollywood's grandest, babbling like schoolgirls before a 90-year-old man who has never made a film," writes Sarah Sands. Funny, but also rather pathetic.
The scenes of jubilation at the Hyde Park concert to mark his 90th birthday represented the emotional apotheosis of Mandelatry, the closest thing International Relations has to an organised religion. Even Amy Winehouse was resurrected from her deathbed, such is the great man's mana - and while the effect may turn out to have been short-lived, it was sufficient to have sustained her (almost) through an intermittently coherent hour-long set at Glastonbury last night. But it was perhaps the evening before, at a dinner in his honour, that Mandela laid bare the delusionary nature of the cult that surrounds him. Because it was on that occasion, after months of silence and prevarication, that Mandela finally said something that might, at a pinch, be taken as criticism of Robert Mugabe.
"A tragic failure of leadership", is how he put it. Something of an understatement, surely, of all the beatings, the rapes and the murders perpetrated by Mugabe's thugs to enable him to cling to power, vote-rigging having failed so spectacularly in March. Indeed, Zimbabwe didn't even merit its own sentence in the Mandela speech; rather, it was tacked on, an undistinguished phrase in longer lament:
We warned against the invasion of Iraq, and observe the terrible suffering in that country. We watch with sadness the continuing tragedy in Darfur. Nearer to home we had seen the outbreak of violence against fellow Africans in our own country and the tragic failure of leadership in our neighbouring Zimbabwe.
Like the later Margaret Thatcher, Mandela has taken to referring to himself in the plural, though his appropriation of "our own country" and "our neighbouring Zimbabwe" more closely resembles a formal royal decree. Mugabe's criminal regime is here placed on the same moral level as the stupid but ultimately well-meaning decision to topple Saddam Hussein, another ruthless despot. Note, too, that the reference to violence seemingly applies merely to the breakdown of law and order that has led to attacks on Zimbabwean refugees in South Africa. Shocking as that has been, it was not organised and carried out by agents of the state and the ruling elite. By any objective assessment, then, Mandela has once more failed, or refused, to tell it like it is.
It was a "tragic failure of leadership", all right. But not by Mugabe. By Mandela's ridiculous successor Thabo Mbeki, first of all, whose latest diplomatic triumph it was to remove the word "illegitimate" from the UN's description of the Zimbabwe election. But also by Mandela himself, who could long ago have used his immense moral authority to destroy Mugabe's legitimacy in a single word. I mean this literally. Mugabe's tactic, in retaining the support of fellow African leaders, has been to appeal to his status as a leader of the "liberation struggle". This, of course, has been the tactic employed by sub-Saharan despots from Maputo to Idi Amin, and Mugabe doesn't look out of place in such company. His rule has, almost since the beginning, be accompanied by corruption, intimidation and intermittent massacres, starting with the rape of Matabeleland in the early 1980s.
Less bloodthirsty or frankly crazed than some of his peers (it's unlikely that human remains will be discovered in any of his fridges, come the revolution), Mugabe nevertheless yields to few in terms of incompetence or sheer cynical determination to advance his own power. But he is, so his propaganda asserts, a "hero of anti-colonialism". Only one person has the power unilaterally to blackball Mugabe from that particular club; there's only one independence leader whose personal record remains spotless. That person is Mandela; and he has failed to exercise his tribunician veto. As a consequence, Mugabe is today able to show up at Shaam al-Sheikh and strut his stuff with the other African headmen.
He could have spoken out. After all, Desmond Tutu has been calling for Mugabe to be shown the door for years now. Tutu may be the one person on the planet who makes outsiders think the Anglican church worth saving, but sadly his writ doesn't run among African heads of state. He's not one of their number. He can only be a prophet, crying in the wilderness. If Mandela had spoken so clearly, they would have listened. And so, I dare say, would many of Mugabe's remaining supporters.
It was too little. It was too late. It will do no good.
You wouldn't know that from the coverage, though. Almost all the newspapers and broadcasting organisations went into overdrive celebrating the supposed significance of Mandela's words. "His words were seen as hugely important" said the Independent. "Mandela condemns Mugabe 'failure'" was the headline on the BBC's account. "Mentions" would have been slightly more accurate. "Although only brief, his words of condemnation will echo around the world and send the strongest signal yet that the tyrant's days in power are numbered," the Mail declared confidently. Somehow I doubt it.
And, in a vignette that perhaps reveals quite a bit about the world-father's sense of priorities, it transpires that Mandela "personally intervened" to ban Naomi Campbell from the Hyde Park event. Using the softly-softly approach on dictators is all very well, it would seem. But he cannot allow himself to be compromised by appearing on the same stage as a stroppy model.
And why had it taken him so long to say even this much? "He had to wait until the United Nations had finished and until it was clear that Mugabe was going to go ahead with this election," said a spokesman. It's hard to see why.
If it be objected that, at the grand old age of ninety, Mandela cannot be expected still to take the lead in international affairs, the answer is simple. He has not always been ninety. But Mugabe always has been a crook. The events of recent weeks have been marked out only by their intensity, their thugishness, and their shamelessness. But Zimbabwe has been suffering from its president's depredations for many, many years. If Mandela had spoken out ten years ago, or even five, Zimbabwe might already be free of Mugabe's tyranny.
We have been here before. In 1995, the distinguished Nigerian writer Ken Saro-Wiwa, along with 8 others, was sentenced to hang by a kangaroo court set up by that country's dictator of the time, Sani Abachi. Despite international protests, the sentence was carried out a few days later. But amid all the many pleas for clemency, one was noticeable by its absence. Few who heard it can forget the anguished voice of Saro-Wiwa's son, Ken, begging Nelson Mandela to intervene, declaring repeatedly that he alone had the authority to sway the Lagos despot. It will never be known whether or not such a call would have reprieved Saro-Wiwa and his fellow campaigners for democracy. But it would not have done any harm.
Why was he silent then, and why is he as near as dammit silent now? Is he signed up to the same Dictators Solidarity Club as his anointed successor Mbeki? Does he prefer to float serenely above the fray, as apolitical as the Queen? Is he, perhaps, afraid that if he spoke plainly, and Mugabe yet survived, he would lose part of his own mystical status?
Mandela is quite capable of being outspoken when he wants to be. In 2002, before the Iraq War, he was happy to describe the USA as "a threat to world peace" and even accused the Americans and British of by-passing the United Nations because its then Secretary General, Kofi Annan, was black! "If there is a country that has committed unspeakable atrocities in the world, it is the United States of America" he said a few months later. Doubtless when he hears Robert Mugabe laying into the wicked neo-colonialists of Whitehall he nods his noble old head in agreement.
That Nelson Mandela is both a great and a good man I wouldn't deny. His achievement in leading South Africa to majority rule with surprisingly little bitterness and bloodshed will assure him his place in history. He played to perfection the role that the world wanted, and South Africa needed, him to perform. There's no doubt that, had he called for a bloody revenge on the white minority many would have answered his call. He did not; and the moral authority he gained as father of the nation has not been squandered. His work raising money to combat HIV and for development projects in Africa has continued into late old-age. He has never sought to enrich himself or his family, and if he has not refused the statues and the honours offered him, as it were to a deified Caesar, by an awestruck world he has used such occasions to promote a wider message.
But he has his faults and moral blind-spots, and a fondness for cosying up to dictators well-versed in liberation-speak is perhaps the worst. His reluctance to criticise Mugabe by name is of a piece, not only with his reluctance to help Ken Saro-Wiwa, but also his friendship with Libya's Colonel Gadhafi, Fidel Castro (the great fallen idol of the international Left) and even, according to some accounts, Saddham Hussein himself. His loudest condemnations have always been reserved for Western countries, even as they showered him with medals and honorary degrees. Even his greatest achievement, in South Africa, was largely a symbolic one. He was the point of gravity around which a new South Africa coalesced. Yet even as he emerged from prison on that unforgettable day in 1990 the South African settlement had already taken shape, and the biggest decisions, and concessions, were not his.
Mandela, in short, is great, but not that great; good, but far from perfect; wise, but also deeply foolish and morally purblind. There is a complex and interesting Mandela that will one day, perhaps, be rediscovered by the historians who will cut him down to size. But many years will have to pass before that reassessment occurs. A generation, probably two, perhaps three, will have to die. For a shiftless, sceptical, fractured age seems to need a hero, a figure almost beyond the category of human being who can bestow a kind of legitimacy on the whole planet. The Myth of Mandela makes the world see itself as a nicer, truer, more noble place. But myth it undoubtedly is.