Fest-Thought: On Saints and Sinners; from Churchill to Mandela.

There is an air of seemingly unending moral dilemmas facing Britain right now which have us all talking. As usual, these come with their sharp divides – as if the ongoing Brexit drama wasn’t enough.

Here are some Fest-Thoughts on one that’s been on my mind lately:

The Labour Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, recently suggested that Winston Churchill was a villain, instead of a hero for his actions over the miner’s riots of November 1910 in Tonypandy, Wales. The riot saw troops called in to quell violent clashes between miners and the police. One miner was killed during this face-off, and in McDonnell’s view – Winston Churchill should be held responsible for the action of the police and resulting loss of life.

His argument found some supporters, as they claimed Churchill was not just some saintly, brave, Nazi crushing character, but a man who was racist, held white supremacist views and played key roles in the death of hundreds of thousands in the then British Empire.

To me, Winston Churchill was no less a hero than was Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King Jnr. or Nelson Mandela. Something that all these men have in common (aside from their gender of course) is that they were all very flawed characters. We paint a very sanitised image of past and sometimes, present figures which betray the human nature they all possess. The tendency for photoshopped, hero worship is not reserved for the social media generation after-all.

Martin Luther King was reportedly a serial adulterer according to a close associate. Rev. Ralph Abernathy (the man who held Dr. King in his arms as he died from the gun shot wound) wrote in his 1989 book of the Civil Rights Movement leader’s dalliances and groupies and his inability to stay away from women, even though he was a married clergyman. There was also the suggestion that one of Dr. King’s mistresses was staying at the hotel where he was fatally shot on that day in April 1968. The Dr. didn’t just have a dream, he also made the ladies dream too!

There are also reports of plagiarism in his PhD thesis and ‘lifting’ of other people’s contents to use in his speeches. Despite all these, Dr. King’s efforts to bring about THE elusive dream, places him in the pantheon of great men who lived on this earth. He was a flawed hero, but nevertheless, a true hero.

I guess there’s hope for us all.

Gandhi’s racist views are also well reported. His sojourn in South Africa certainly must have caused some cultural conundrums for the young Gandhi. There is evidence of him articulating views that held the ‘kaffirs’ as bottom of the pile in terms of races i.e whites, Indians and blacks. Indeed, Nelson Mandela (another imperfect hero), wrote the following about the young Indian lawyer when in South Africa:

“Gandhi had been initially shocked that Indians were classified with Natives in prison… All in all, Gandhi must be forgiven these prejudices in the context of the time and the circumstances.” (“Gandhi the Prisoner” by Nelson Mandela in B.R. Nanda (edited), Mahatma Gandhi: 125 Years, ICCR, 1995.)

Much more could be written about Gandhi’s one time love of the British Empire which he later resisted, proclivities for younger girls and his most bizarre sex life, nevertheless, his efforts to address the inequalities he met in South Africa, inspiration he gave to the aforementioned Dr. King and the role played in the liberation of India cannot be swept away. He was a flawed hero, but nevertheless, a true hero nonetheless.

Lastly, I touch on one of my other heroes, Madiba Nelson Mandela. A favourite book of mine titled ‘Conversation with Myself’ takes the reader into years of memory drawn from correspondence this great man had with loved ones and close associates. Straddled with personal commentary, I was impressed by the sagacity of the man, and gained a greater insight of the inner demons he duelled with regularly.

His co-prisoner on Robben Island once noted that while incarcerated, Mandela did not want to be seen as a saint or an idol, but just as an ordinary human being with virtues and vices alike. Quite rightly so too as some of his violent rhetoric and actions in the struggle against the vicious apartheid regime, were a marked contrast to that of Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi. He would later go on to have some rather close relationships with ruthless dictators such as Col. Gaddaffi of Libya and Pres. Suharto of Indonesia both of whom were reported to have given tens of millions of dollars to his party, the ANC.

His relationship with Winnie Mandela also cast a dark cloud over his domestic life according to other reports as have questions been raised around his close ties to big business

Nevertheless, and despite all of these, Nelson Mandela will live long in memory as a hero. Flawed, but a hero still.

We run the risk of over-sanitising the image of great men and women who have led our world to heights never before seen. Especially in the field of politics. It is important that we tell both sides of their very human story, otherwise, how could anyone else ever dare to dream a similar dream to these giants of history. From each of the flawed heroes outlined above we learn several lessons on courage, commitment and focus while battling our own fears, doubts and indiscipline.

We do no one any favours by presenting mere mortals, who happened to be at the right place at the right time and made the right calls, as anything other than humans. Likewise, we could end up discouraging future dreamers and giants from assuming their places in history if we make this hallowed space one that is to be occupied purely by infallible humans – of which there are none.

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