The death of Nelson Mandela on December 5 instantly became an occasion for liberals to bash conservatives for failing to support Mandela’s cause in the 1980s. This kind of historical gotcha-game is irresistible, and you can’t deny people their fun; certainly, cold warriors could not get enough of it after the fall of the Soviet Union.

But there is irony in it, especially today, because the key exhibit in the indictment against the right for its misconduct in the 1980s was its opposition to the impositions of sanctions against South Africa. In one sense, the indictment is correct: The sanctions proved spectacularly effective in altering the regime’s monstrous behavior. But the right learned from its error. In the aftermath of the South African example, sanctions became a favored foreign-policy tool, not only as an expression of moral opprobrium against an evil-doing regime but also as a means of seeking change in a regime’s conduct.

Thus, it was the right that sought and compelled the impositions of sanctions against the regime in Iran (finding common cause with some liberals). And it was the Obama administration that resisted and opposed the imposition of such sanctions—and now seeks to do away with them as a precondition of pursuing a grand bargain with Iran on its nuclear program. I suspect most of those who attacked the right in the wake of Mandela’s death for its blindness on South Africa support the lifting of sanctions against Iran. Evidently, in their eyes, some moral struggles are more moral than others.

In any case, amusing as the gotcha-game must be, it actually belittles Mandela and the immensity of his moral achievement upon his release from prison in 1990. It is difficult to conjure up the memory of an absence, especially when the absent one became one of the most famous men in the world. But what mattered about Mandela as the personification of South African resistance worldwide was precisely that—his absence.

When most people outside of South Africa learned his name, in the late 1970s, he had been in prison for 14 years, and his voice had been silenced by the regime in South Africa. The last known photograph of Mandela had been taken in 1964. The regime, nearly totalitarian in its control of the press, forbade the dissemination of his likeness, so South Africans who grew up at the time had no idea what Mandela looked like, and certainly no clue what he sounded like.

Indeed, by the 1970s, he had been supplanted as the foremost resistance figure by Steve Biko, who was young and charismatic and very radical and then was beaten to death after his arrest in 1977. Biko became a martyr to the cause. It was after Biko’s death that the anti-apartheid movement brilliantly chose to fix its focus on a living victim, Mandela—to use his status as a silenced political prisoner to make him the literal symbol of the condition of his people.

So what was known of this silent, invisible figure?

Before prison, Mandela had been an advocate of armed struggle and violent resistance. In that era, such terms had very plain meanings—they connoted not just the removal of a regime but its aftermath, a Marxist-Leninist purification process awash in blood. What was also known of him was his marriage to Winnie Mandela; over the course of the 1980s, she became an out-and-out gang leader and terrorist, supervising the torture and slaughter of other black people deemed collaborators by “necklacing” them—putting tires around their necks and setting them on fire. And what else was known of him was his leadership of the African National Congress, which was straightforwardly aligned with the Soviet Union. (Indeed, the collapse of world Communism is, in part, what made his release inevitable.)

Had he emerged from prison as a firebrand, preaching the need for a reckoning in South Africa, who would have gainsaid him? This was his choice to make; indeed, for many, it would have seemed the only choice to make. But instead of following the Marxist-Leninist path he had charted in the 1950s and 1960s, he went another way—the way of Spain, and Chile, and the nations liberated from Soviet domination in Central and Eastern Europe. No bloodbath. No vengeance. No necklaces.

He was, instead, magnanimous. Magnanimity is a quality all but unknown in our age, and his personification of it supplanted his personification of the struggle against racist evil. This was a very, very great man.

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