Having just finished reading Nelson Mandela’s autobiography Long Walk to Freedom (unsurprisingly, one of the most inspirational books I’ve ever read – if you’ve not read it yet, stop reading this blog and go do so right now!), I’ve been pondering a lot on the man who has indisputably become one of history’s most revered individuals. I never fail to be impressed by his capacity for tolerance and forgiveness, by his ability to see the humanity in every human no matter how cruel their actions or by his pragmatic approach to every problem, putting aside his personal feelings. He was by no means perfect, and prone to as many failings as the next person, yet in a sea of corrupt and tyrannical political leaders, when compared to the likes of Robert Mugabe or Muammar Gaddafi in Africa – or frankly, any leader taking power after a period of intense turmoil – he’s a saint.
One area many revered political leaders tend to have less than admirable records, however, is that of LGBT rights. Margaret Thatcher, a hero to Britain’s current government – which recently legalised same-sex marriage – introduced strict rules against the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality not unlike what Putin’s doing in Russia today. This isn’t confined to right-wing ‘moral values’; even George Orwell regarded homosexuality as unnatural. The argument is often given that these attitudes are a product of their upbringing and common to all in their generation. While this is true, it cannot wholly serve as an excuse. Despite being seven years older than Thatcher, and only fifteen younger than Orwell, it was under Nelson Mandela’s presidency that South Africa adopted one of the most liberal approaches towards LGBT rights not just in Africa but in the entire world, even extending to guarantees for transgender people (often left out of the LGBT banner). Mandela belonged to the very same generation as Thatcher and a similar one to Orwell. Granted, his cultural background greatly differed, though homophobia was prevalent in both Britain and South Africa in the early 20th century.
This is just another example of Mandela’s astonishing ability to overcome opinions and reactions which he would have been socially-conditioned into. To be clear, he was never a vocal advocate for LGBT rights – South African journalist Mark Gevisser portrays him as not ‘always comfortable’ with the idea. Which, given the society he grew up in, is perfectly understandable. But the point is that he overcame these ingrained prejudices and accepted that the universality of human rights includes the LGBT community. Sure, he never pushed for these rights as president (though in fairness his list of impending priorities was pretty large), but nor did he offer any opposition when it became ANC policy. This is in stark contrast to so many other leaders who have allowed their gut reaction to colour their opinions, and just another example of why Mandela deserves so much respect. It’s easy for the liberals of today to accept LGBT rights as natural and correct, but we must bear in mind how much of a cultural leap it would have taken for previous generations. That South Africa retains, by far, the best record of any African country regarding LGBT rights, is due in no small part to Mandela’s decision to embrace the winds of change in public opinion.