The passing of Nelson Mandela

The passing of Nelson Mandela

This week, I had prepared a sequel to last week’s blog. However when I learned last night of Nelson Mandela’s death, I decided to put down a few somewhat random and spontaneous thoughts about him, as an adjunct to my post of July 5, when his condition had been declared “critical”.

He was a different kind of African leader. Without being a specialist on Africa, I have often felt as an observer that one of the great curses that has afflicted most of the continent in the past century is the failure of leadership.

In general, the “independence leaders” who came to power in the second half of the 20th century were people who vowed to liberate their nations from all the indignities and injustices of the colonial past. Far too often, the rhetoric of these leaders hid their own thirst for wealth and power. Many never left office, usurping authority over all branches of government and employing corrupt methods to continue to rule as long as possible.

Nelson Mandela was different. Rather than act in his self-interest or that of his political allies, he truly saw himself as a nation builder. As the last of Africa’s liberation leaders to take charge of a country, he was cognizant of the importance of bucking the trend of the other nations. Leading by example, and with his characteristic generosity of spirit, he chose to serve only one term, when he most probably could have easily won reelection.

The importance of respect: Walter Sisulu, Mandela’s long-time friend and fellow freedom fighter, once said that what Mandela fought so hard for all his life was “ordinary respect”. To Mandela’s way of thinking, apartheid had denied black people the common respect that all human beings should have.

But, rather than seek vengeance against the white oppressors, Mandela decided that the best way to win the respect of others was by always giving it to them. While in prison, he studied diligently the ways and the language of the Afrikaners. He would later use this knowledge with great success in his efforts to win them over.

In everything I have read about Mandela, and in the film Invictus, one sees that respect for all is truly a central theme of his life. It was his custom to stand and acknowledge the presence of anyone who entered a room, even if it was simply a servant pouring tea for him as president.

In a 1993 incident recounted by John Carlin in his new book, Knowing Mandela, there was word that South African general Constand Viljoen was plotting an Afrikaner guerrilla war against Mandela’s principle of multiracial rule. Mandela’s reaction was to invite Viljoen and his key advisors over for tea. When Viljoen and three retired generals arrived at Mandela’s house in Johannesburg, they were greeted not by servants but by a smiling Mandela, who shook their hands and expressed his delight at seeing them. Then he invited Viljoen to his lounge for a private chat, served the general’s tea himself, and spoke in the Afrikaans language he had mastered in prison.

In that meeting, Mandela succeeded in persuading Viljoen that a guerrilla war would lead nowhere, even convincing his rival to run for parliament in the multiracial elections. Viljoen left the meeting completely purged of his aggressive mindset and warlike thoughts. Years later, he would tell Carlin in an interview, “Mandela wins over all who meet him.”

To reach his goal of multiracial rule, Mandela understood the importance of keeping Afrikaners loyal. He did not want to see an exodus of white people, with their valuable skills and capital, which is exactly what had happened in neighboring Mozambique upon independence.

One of Mandela’s great triumphs in the area of race relations was his astute use of the 1995 Rugby World Cup, which South Africa hosted. He managed to win the hearts and minds of many Afrikaners by adopting “their game”, to the dismay of many of his black supporters. When the Springboks, as the national side is called, won the Cup against some heavily favored and more powerful teams, a glowing Mandela sported a green Springbok jersey as an entire stadium filled with whites and blacks chanted, “Nelson, Nelson!”

Nelson Mandela always encouraged human possibility: I close this post with one of my favorite quotes from the former president, a statement that I have often used in my leadership teaching and lecturing to inspire my audience members to define larger goals and ambitions for themselves. The words are from the new president’s 1994 inaugural address, his call of hope and challenge for all South Africans: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate; our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves — ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be?”


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