Human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell has been one of the few to point out that the late South African President and Nobel Prize winner Nelson Mandela was not without his shortcomings.

‘Mandela was a political and moral giant,’ says Tatchell. ‘He led the victorious liberation struggle against apartheid, and then pioneered the peaceful transition to multi-racial democracy. His extraordinary compassion and forgiveness led to reconciliation with his former white supremacist oppressors. For all these reasons, he is a global icon and deservedly so. Few people in history can match his moral stature

‘But despite his greatness, there were notable failures. His presidency did not do enough to tackle poverty or HIV. And he failed to speak out against Mugabe’s tyranny in Zimbabwe.’

Tatchell was involved in the four-year-long, non-stop picket outside the South African embassy in London, from 1986 to 1990. He later advised the ANC on the anti-discrimination clause of the post-apartheid constitution.

600 HIV deaths a day

‘When he was South African president, from 1994-99, HIV was killing more South Africans than the vile system of apartheid ever did; claiming 600 lives a day, which is the equivalent of nine Sharpeville massacres every 24 hours. Mandela bowed to public sensitivities and taboos; failing to deal decisively with the HIV crisis. He refused calls to lead a public education and prevention campaign. His government failed to make anti-HIV drugs widely available. Earlier and stronger action would have saved tens of thousands lives.

‘Under his presidency, not nearly enough was done to tackle poverty. For the most part, the black majority remained impoverished. Mandela did not significantly reform the economic system and income inequalities of the apartheid era. Land reform was slow, piecemeal and limited.

Speaking out against Mugabe

‘Mandela’s other big failing was that he never spoke out against the murderous Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe or expressed his solidarity with Zimbabweans struggling for their freedom. Robert Mugabe had killed more black Africans than the apartheid leaders, John Forster and P W Botha, combined. Yet Mandela said nothing about Mugabe’s terror campaign of detention without trial, torture, rape and extra-judicial killings. Hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans had their homes demolished. Millions were starved into submission by the withholding of food aid. This was tyranny on a scale comparable to the worst excesses of the apartheid regime. Yet Mandela was silent.

‘Is it fair to criticise the great man? Yes. From an extraordinary leader, we expect extraordinary leadership.

‘Mandela’s shortcomings do not, however, detract from the fact that, for the most part, he was a truly remarkable, honourable man. I shed a tear at his passing. He will be long remembered – and long loved.

‘On this sad day I look back to a moment of great joy. I remember watching the live television coverage of Nelson Mandela on the historic day in 1990, when he walked free from prison after 27 years incarceration. It was a joyous occasion for millions of people worldwide who had campaigned so long and hard for his freedom – including me. This was an emotionally-charged moment. A lump swelled in my throat. After 21 years of campaigning for Mandela’s release, it was as if a dear, close friend had been finally freed from jail.’