What Mandela taught me was the bankruptcy of political extremes and the need for a national leader to work in order to bring everyone around.
In the 1980s I was a Young Liberal, and bought into the whole notion that sanctions against South Africa were pointless. I bought into the idea that Mandela was a communist terrorist and that Mangosuthu Buthulezi was a good-enough replacement. I thought this only served to prove that the devil had the best tunes. Then I met more and more people emigrating from a country that was as good as it could have been, given the insistence on excluding most of its people from actual and potential opportunities, and given the sheer skill of their politicians at excuse-making.
What Mandela showed was the bankruptcy of class and sectional warfare in national governments. Yes he killed people, and he represented those who were killed on much the same basis. He spouted all that Trotsky/Maoist crap about armed struggle, which usually comes after you have ceased to represent working people and started to regard them as a sheeplike base which you own and punish. Unlike his contemporaries, he rose above it.
The apartheid state was formalised in South Africa in 1948. By the 1960s it was clear that it had failed. Kids born around and after 1948, who had known only apartheid, rioted at Sharpeville in 1960 and were neither cowed nor awed by the crackdown that followed. Mandela was arrested in 1964 and sent to an offshore detention facility, but not to the point where he was cauterised from his country's politics. Keeping him there was a smart move - the architect of apartheid, Hendrik Verwoerd, had been murdered by a parliamentary attendant in 1966, and it is highly possible that the seething politics of the ANC would not have similarly accounted for Mandela. His detention was a national insurance policy, and showed that the Broederbond who ran the politics of apartheid might have been stupid, but not crazy.
What, then, was the alternative to apartheid? At the time, communism was being imposed on people in Europe and China by regimes no better, and often far worse, than apartheid South Africa. Successful communist uprisings, such as those in Cuba and Vietnam, distanced themselves from the drones in Moscow. Those uprisings were largely free of race, gender, and other social cleavages not related to Marx-defined industrial classes; South Africa had no choice but to manage and accommodate myriad interests without the wittering about My Struggle Is More Important Than Yours, which renders the left a national joke almost everywhere else. South African communists were smart enough to realise that they were a support act to the ANC rather than the other way around. Joe Slovo or Ronnie Kasrils would have disappeared from history had they seriously regarded Mandela, Walter Sisulu, or Oliver Tambo as "useful idiots".
Australia began turning away from apartheid just as South Africa committed to it in the early 1960s. In early 1960s Australia you can see the earliest developments toward recognising Aborigines, which came with the 1967 referendum, the shift in emphasis on Colombo Plan toward encouraging students to stay here rather than just study and return, and the beginnings of the end of the White Australia Policy. It's funny how things turn out, really.
In the 1980s Australia underwent an economic revolution, predicated on the idea that the country was ready to deal with a global economy. For South Africa that didn't come until a decade later, and even then it was limited. Even so, South Africa under Mandela showed what can be achieved with real political leadership. The ANC made the country pretty much ungovernable in the 1980s, with small brushfires of dissent and violence, but threw the switch when it came their turn to govern. Trevor Manuel's economic stewardship came with a lot of goodwill, but didn't rely so heavily on pointless blame-the-predecessors to make positive cases for change.
South African voters in 1994 were as grateful for their franchise as voters in the former Eastern Bloc and USSR, which made Keating's "true believers" indulgence grate even more. Keating had a vision, but let himself down by refusing to rise to the occasion that leading a vision demands: if Labor limits its leaders in that way, then be that on its own head. Howard thought he could vault the lessons of history by being effusive, but the look of disgust on Mandela's face as he received an honorary Order of Australia from Howard showed the poverty of that tactic. Mandela was all about the repetition of simple, clear messages, but his lines looked like distilled wisdom rather than the focus-group muppetry of Australian politicians.
If you win government, then spend all your time blaming your predecessors until they become your successors, what have you won? Australian media organisations think they're clever by churning out pre-assembled content, but I doubt it's that insightful and reinforces their laziness rather than challenging it with topicality and reflections on a broad, tumultuous and often difficult life. Certainly, the Prime Minister shirked the opportunity to reflect on his example by consigning him, G W Bush-like, to "Africa".
Mandela knew the answer to that question, that you have a limited time in power and you have to take people with you. He didn't solve every problem, and it's silly to frame his legacy as a dichotomy between saint and sinner (though such a lame approach will get you top marks at journalism courses, because that's the house style at newspapers and magazines in the northeastern United States). Maybe it is unfair to judge Australian politicians against Nelson Mandela, but hey that's what greatness is. Churchill redefined the way his country should be governed and cast a shadow over those who followed, and so has Mandela in his country - preceded by that reverse-von-Papen F W de Klerk, and succeeded by the prissy and flaky Mbeki and the dodgy Zuma. Mandela is the Churchill of our time; that's what defines him, not the partisanship and political conveniences of a bygone era which he successfully transcended. Goodbye Mandela, and thank you.