WASHINGTON -- There was little that was not beautiful and, beauty's inevitable partner, appropriate about Nelson Mandela's burial in his Eastern Cape hometown of Qunu last weekend.
His townsfolk, remembering the youngster who was a prince of his tribe, saw him in their memories doing his shuffling dance, which in his later life had amused so many sophisticates in Johannesburg, and devoutly practicing his lifelong Methodist faith. They recalled for foreign journalists that funerals there are a manner of remembering a person's life -- and no one, ever, in South Africa had had such a life as his!
And yet, after all the worldwide praise of this amazing man, who spent 27 years in prison before being freed to lead his people, as much print space and television time was being given to a stupid mess-up that had nothing to do with his memory. I'm sick at heart having to see and read about all the "slips" made by the South African government in allowing a nobody to stand 2 feet from President Obama while he spoke at Mandela's funeral -- signing pure "gibberish," according to genuine sign language specialists.
Not only that, but the sign language interpreter, Thamsanqa Jantjie, turned out not to be such at all, and instead described himself as schizophrenic with violent tendencies. According to South African national news, he was accused of murder 10 years ago.
How could such a thing happen? the world asked. Indeed! But in fact, it was not so difficult to figure out. Mr. Jantjie was simply a reminder -- right there, smack in the middle of the genuine emotional ecstasies of the Mandela funeral -- that while the beloved departed was all the things the speakers said and more, what he left behind was too often far less than all they claimed.
"Charismatic" is a word that is woefully misused these days. One hears it over and over in the news, usually meaning that some TV idol is pleasing, his or her singing captivating. In its truest sense, charismatic refers to a man like Mandela, who came out of prison to free his people by inspiring them with his body and spirit to climb out of misery.
Other famous charismatic leaders of our times include Cuba's Fidel Castro (remember the chanting "Fi-del, Fi-del, Fi-del"); Argentina's Juan Peron (one of the famous Latin "men on balconies" who entranced crowds) and, at least as much, his wife, Evita; Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser (another charmer of the multitudes); and Turkey's Ataturk, as well as evil charismatics such as Uganda's Idi Amin and Germany's Adolf Hitler.
Across history, famous charismatics have almost always, in the great German sociologist Max Weber's term, come "down from the mountains." Recall Moses, after his 40 days wandering in the wilderness. Or Abraham, father of the three great international religions -- Christianity, Judaism and Islam -- coming down from his home in Ur, now in Iraq, where the ziggurat of Ur served as his mountain. Or recall, in our times, Fidel Castro coming down from the Sierra Maestra, or Kim Il-sung coming down from the aeries of North Korea where he had been a shaman before becoming a god-like leader, which is the mark of the charismatic.
But what does this have to do with Nelson Mandela?
In almost all cases of charismatic leadership, whether that leader is great or evil, whether he or she is a freeing influence or a further imprisoning one, the aftermath is frightfully disappointing. Here is the story one wishes not to tell with a man like Mandela.
The fact is that the nation he leaves behind -- the very one that Mandela formed through the identification of millions of people with him and with his moral spirit -- is an enormously disappointing one. It is no secret that, while 85 percent of whites are prosperous, 85 percent of blacks live in poverty, and that black crime is so rampant that whites who can are leaving for Europe or Latin America. Most white South Africans now carry guns, afraid as they are of the poverty-bred crime on the part of black citizens.
When Nelson Mandela was finally let out of prison at age 71, he insisted that he would walk alone to the gate. Then he said, "I am free -- but I am never free so long as I am burdened with anger and hatred."
With these words, he then freed a nation. But great poets, writers or warriors do not a bureaucracy make. His presidency was inspiring, and he talked much about "rationality," but such words do not a sanitation bureau create. One charismatic leader I researched said that he hoped he would die the day after taking power, because he could not create an institutionalized society.
Nor could Nelson Mandela. Of all his talents, this was not one. Nor did he create someone to take over. So now, we will see -- is someone lurking in the wings who can collect the garbage and take pride in doing it? If not, Mandela's great story will start to fade.
(Georgie Anne Geyer has been a foreign correspondent and commentator on international affairs for more than 40 years. She can be reached at gigi_geyer(at)juno.com.)