Is Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron an unabashed hypocrite, or is he merely another Conservative politician? His tribute to Nelson Mandela, delivered before cameras perched outside his famous address 10 Downing Street, was fulsome. But Cameron forgot to mention that when he was at university, he kept a "Hang Mandela" poster in his rooms.
Cameron and his Tory circle still revere Mrs Margaret Thatcher, who was instrumental in propping up South Africa's apartheid structure long after America and most of the West understood that there could be no justification for its racist cruelty, and that support for such barbaric injustice undermined the claims of democratic nations to represent the best of modern civilisation. The British Conservative school of thought, which included its share of much-promoted historians, was the last hold-out. It remained insistent that colonisation and such evil variations as apartheid were good for "natives" who had been "blessed" by European intervention in their histories. Admittedly, the British Raj was far less malevolent than apartheid, but explain that to the millions of Indians who died in famine and Chinese who became slaves to opium.
It is entirely consistent that two of the three greatest visionaries of the 20th century emerged from the horrors of South Africa [and one, Martin Luther King, from the long shadow of slavery in the United States]. Perhaps it requires the worst levels of degradation to inspire the genius of a Mandela or a Mahatma Gandhi. You have to experience hell in order to understand that the alternative cannot be revenge, which would only create another hell with a different power structure. As Gandhi used to say often enough, if we take an eye for an eye very soon the whole world will become blind.
We should never underestimate the rage that a Gandhi or a Mandela experienced when they set out to challenge systems that, according to prevalent wisdom, would survive for centuries. But they understood that the secret of oppression lies less in the strength of the master and more in the weakness of the slave. Their challenge was similar. They had to liberate their own people from fear if they wanted to destroy the dictatorships which had usurped their nations. Their own lives, their exemplary courage and unsurpassed sacrifice, became beacons that rescued helpless and hopeless generations from the vicious grip of tyranny.
Never, never, never, said Mandela, as he took the oath of office after 27 years of youth lost in an island prison, would South Africa see the return of brutal subjugation. And in 1947, once Gandhi had broken the shackles, the great European project of Afro-Asian colonisation crumbled like a palace built on sand. But what is truly astonishing is that, unlike Communists who killed their Tsars with a manic glee, Gandhi and Mandela understood that the future would be best protected by assimilation instead of civil or uncivil war.
We should never underestimate the rage that a Gandhi or a Mandela experienced when they set out to challenge systems that, according to prevalent wisdom, would survive for centuries.
The easy thing to do about great men is to remove them from our lives and stick them onto the insipid pages of clichéd text books. We ordinary mortals do not possess the character to emulate a Gandhi or a Mandela, who chose the abstemious culture of an ashram or suffered the loneliness of prison when surrender would have restored the comforts of existence. We do not have the inner power to place the turmoil of our hidden, weak, frail and contradictory selves for inspection on public display, as Gandhi did in his autobiography. But we can learn something from their extraordinary philosophy of compassion. Gandhi and Mandela were disciples of a deeper faith: they turned the other cheek — and did so before merciless enemies who had the temerity to call themselves Christian. They believed that the meek must inherit the earth. They loved their neighbours as themselves, particularly if the neighbour was a Muslim when they were Hindu, or white when they were black.
They were not perfect. They laughed if anyone suggested such nonsense. Heroes do not need sycophants; only petty adventurers seek flattery. They were not saints. They were not so naïve as to believe that the ideal could always become the practical; they absorbed and tried to deflect that vanity and puffery that was strewn within the political milieu that they served, protected and helped prosper. But they were wise enough to understand that without idealism on the horizon, the politics of any society or nation gets lost in a maze that quickly degenerates into a fetid prison of the mind.
They both believed in God. They did not get a chance to converse in this life, but perhaps their souls will meet in Heaven. As they look down they cannot be entirely content with the deviations and corruption of their inheritors. But I am sure they will both be pleased with Cameron's honest and heartfelt tribute, for that represents their ultimate triumph. The heir of Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher knows that the half-naked fakir and the black young man prevailed in the long war because they believed in peace.