MOST Americans will be getting their first close look at Nelson Mandela over the next 10 days. The anti-apartheid leader, who arrived in the United States yesterday, will visit eight cities from New York to Oakland, Calif. In addition to addressing the United Nations and a joint session of Congress, and meeting with President Bush, Mr. Mandela will be feted with motorcades, concerts, and rallys. Public adulation of ``stars'' is commonplace in this age of media hype. But there is something distinctly different about the reaction to Mandela's tour than to most celebrity roadshows. It is more, shall we say, reverent. For Nelson Mandela is not just a central figure in newsmaking events.
With his regal bearing, his beatific lack of bitterness after long years of imprisonment, and his espousal of a cause that is unequivocally right and just, Mandela has acquired, for many whites as well as blacks, an almost saintly aura. In honoring Mandela, many feel that they are honoring their own idealism, their noblest aspirations.
There's a paradox, however. A Nelson Mandela transcends grubby marketing - a primal force of modern life that, even as we respond to it, most of us resent. Yet Mandela's image and message are as unnuanced, as unburden by troublesome complexities and inconvenient details, as the most reductive ad slogan.
Mandela will urge Bush and other US policymakers to preserve economic sanctions on South Africa, despite the bold steps of reform that have been taken by South African President Frederik de Klerk (whose own heroism mustn't go unacknowledged). We agree that sanctions should remain until the destruction of apartheid is further advanced and safely irreversible.
But Mandela and the black-rights movement in South Africa also have a way to go in formulating and expounding a detailed, workable program to bring about reform without hurtling their country into recession or a new form of repression.
We join in the celebration of Mandela's courage and of what he stands for. But we'll try not to let Mandela's brilliant light blind us to the hard intricacies that still grip his homeland.