THE death of a national leader can help citizens to rethink their country’s public life. By reflecting together on a leader’s decisive actions, his admirable values, or his penetrating moral insights, ordinary folk can acknowledge and address their society’s limitations. But the political vultures are also circling overhead. And they may have their own plans to exploit the opportunities that national mourning presents.

First, politicians and their officials will sometimes coldly use the grief of a distracted nation to hide their own misdeeds. We should recall the actions of Jo Moore, a British Labour Party spin doctor, on the afternoon of September 11 2001. The eyes of the world were on the two towers of New York’s World Trade Centre, ablaze but not yet fallen. Moore e-mailed to her colleagues that "it’s now a very good day to get out anything we want to bury. Councillors’ expenses?"

The next morning, when the towers had come down, Moore’s department did indeed quietly announce politically sensitive changes to the system of allowances for municipal politicians.

Second, political leaders may cynically use popular grief to suppress reason. Nelson Mandela often succeeded magnificently but sometimes he also failed (albeit majestically). Who really gains from the elevation of a political leader into an untouchable icon? Not Mandela himself, who does not need our plaudits. The myth-makers who claim that a leader is beyond fault are ultimately seeking to shield a whole political class, and not just one individual, from the public scrutiny upon which democracy depends.

Third, many members of our political class will try to use their allegedly close relationship with the great man to their political advantage. Leaders such as Chris Hani and Steve Biko accumulated more friendships when they were dead than they enjoyed when they were alive. Mandela will undoubtedly accumulate many more.

Mandela’s career was littered with protracted personal conflicts — on Robben Island, for example, he engaged in a decade-long war of ideological attrition with fellow prisoner Govan Mbeki that helped to define the fault lines of the post-apartheid African National Congress (ANC).

As ANC and state president, Mandela bruised the egos of many of his colleagues, infuriated others with his stubbornness (in truth a major political asset), and sometimes overturned by personal fiat the properly reached decisions of his comrades. All of this may soon be forgotten as the entire political establishment tries to claim Mandela as its own.

Finally, and perhaps worst of all, Nelson Mandela may become an instrument in political campaigning. Mandela, of course, could not withdraw from political life simply by retiring. He was at the heart of all of the greatest political dramas in the contemporary ANC. In June 2005, for example, when then president Thabo Mbeki removed Jacob Zuma from his position as deputy president, Mandela "fully supported" the president in "this difficult time in the life of our government, nation and organisation". But he signally refused to condemn the embattled Zuma, and nine days later sent him a cheque for R1m to ease his financial distress.

Even death will not take Mandela out of our political life. Despite their better instincts, ANC professionals may well decide that "Mandela’s legacy" is an inescapable theme for next year’s national and provincial elections. Implausible as it may seem, the Democratic Alliance may even try to claim Mandela as its own.

We will be better off remembering Mandela as a human being wrestling, sometimes unsuccessfully, with intractable historical and political challenges.

To idealise a great political leader — to try to take that person out of politics and the humanity out of that person — is in the end a futile or even contradictory endeavour.

The authority of great leaders is partly built upon traits that in others would be seen as flaws: in Mandela’s case, his implacable stubbornness, his inattention to democratic niceties, and, when necessary, his political ruthlessness.

Butler teaches politics at the University of Cape Town.