Mandela’s legacy: Six Lessons in Moral Leadership, By Evelyn Groenink

A guy in the train on the way to the Mandela memorial service in Soweto says he is bitter.  “Yes, we are free now. But we are still poor.  There is still no quality education for all.  I had expected more, twenty years after liberation from apartheid.” 

I ask if he blames Mandela. Some have done so, even going as far calling him a ‘sell-out’ who was so busy reconciling with whites that he forgot about his own people.  My fellow passenger thinks about it and shakes his head. “I don’t blame Mandela. It’s others who came after him. He could not put everything right by himself. He was only human.” His friend, seated next to him, then also speaks. “If we wouldn’t have had reconciliation with the whites we would have had civil war. I don’t think I would be running my T-shirt printing company now if that had happened.” He waits a bit, lost in thought. Then he adds: “You know, in this country, it was whites who had the business skills and expertise. Mandela told them to use that for the good of the country and share with us blacks.  And he told us not to chase them away and burn everything.”

The two look again at the book they brought with them, Mandela’s ‘Conversations with myself.’  It looks like they have been paging through it a lot.  “One thing is clear, this man was always trying to find the right thing to do”, concludes the first one. “He thought about right and wrong. He wasn’t reconciling with you if you wanted to do a wrong thing. When Ernie Els (a famous white golfer, EG), said he was going to leave the country only because there had been a burglary at his house,  Mandela said ‘good riddance’.”

The brief conversation speaks to the core of the issue of South African reconciliation between black and white after apartheid, a reconciliation much misinterpreted, just as much as the moral leadership of Nelson Mandela himself.

On the white side, and internationally in the West, the most widely promoted interpretation of Mandela’s reconciliatory stance is the image of the friendly grandfather who would hug, love and forgive everybody, no matter who you were and regardless of what you did or even what you were continuing to do. ‘Tata’ simply loved you and absolved you. Literally all (South African) white respondents to a documentary maker’s question ‘what did Mandela mean to you’ mentioned his ‘love and forgiveness.’ It is not difficult to understand how this would irk many in the black majority who experienced and continue to experience the consequences of the pain of apartheid. “You are asked to forgive the guy who stole your watch even when he is not saying sorry and he has still got your watch”, as someone succinctly put it.

This image of the all-loving, all-forgiving ‘Madiba’ was most embarrassingly promoted in the obituary run by the New York Times online. ‘Icon of peaceful resistance dies’, the US quality paper said, confusing the founder of the ANC’s liberation army with Gandhi and Martin Luther King.  The newspaper changed the headline after several thousand fuming tweets made it aware of the error. But a US blogger called ‘Threefingeredfox’ hit the nail on the head when he or she pointed out that the error had probably been made in good faith,  totally subconsciously, simply because the nice peace-loving-moral- icon image is so attractive to a guilty conscience.

The blogger went on to explain, quite correctly, that “The myth of peaceful resistance is flattering to the oppressor and disabling to the oppressed. ‘You ought not to fight us with more than the image of your own broken body’, it says, ‘for we who oppress you are good and rational — most of the time. We, your rulers, simply need to have our consciences pricked from time to time.’”

It is, again, no surprise that many who want real change in South Africa and the world get upset when the ‘reconciliation’ after apartheid is framed in this way. But it is not Mandela they are upset with: it is the ‘framers’ who are to blame. The best way to honour the great man’s memory s therefore, to make sure that we get him right, just like the two guys on the train were trying to do.

Here are six defining traits of Mandela’s moral leadership that are important to remember.

Firstly: Oppression and unjust rule must be resisted. With words and peaceful campaigns at first; with arms when there is no other way. If an oppressor is armed and violent and unrepenting, as apartheid rule was, there may be no other way. And a leader must lead from the front, confronting the enemy ahead of everybody else. He can only move to the rear after victory, for his people to receive congratulations and credit.

Secondly: everybody is welcome to join the struggle against injustice. No group, class, religion, race or gender is excluded, even if others in that group, class, religion or race are part of the enemy.  The oppressor was white, but whites who wanted to join the struggle were welcomed with open arms. Equally, in the new South Africa, an Ernie Els was free to go elsewhere if he so desired, but those who wanted to stay and commit to the country’s welfare, were joyously received. ( And, yes, hugged.) On no account would anybody of good will ever be dismissed.

Thirdly:  nobody is above learning, least of all a leader. Those who criticise the man Mandela –indeed, in his youth he was Rolihlahla, the rash trouble maker, and a bit of a ‘player’, too- would do well to appreciate correction and learning as much as he did. His statement ‘I am not a saint, unless when you say ‘saint’ you mean a sinner who keeps trying’, was not just made glibly. It indicated a profound capacity for listening to criticism and changing his behaviour if it turned out that his critics were right.

A great anecdote in this respect is told by the South African feminist intellectual Colleen Lowe Morna. According to Lowe Morna, the old man caused an embarrassed silence when he inaugurated the national Gender Commission, way back in the nineties, by remarking that he was ‘very happy to be surrounded by so many beautiful women’. Only one very brave young woman rose to tell Mandela: ‘But tata, that is really not what this commission is about.’ Upon which he said: “Ah yes. Of course it isn’t. I still have so much to learn.” And thanked her.

Fourthly, never insult someone without power.  Kings and Presidents should be able to deal with whatever comment, but one should be mindful of how one talks to those who can’t defend themselves. Mandela called the Queen of England ‘Hey Elizabeth’ and once told her she ‘looked prettier than ever’. He castigated US Presidents who dared question his friendship with Fidel Castro. He said of Bush, when the latter promised to liberate Iraq’s people: “All that he wants is Iraqi oil.” But when he was told, on a visit to China, that hotel personnel might feel slighted because of his insistence to make his own bed, he asked to meet the chamber maids. And humbly explained that 27 years of making his own bed in prison had ingrained in him such a habit that he really wanted to continue to do this and could they please allow him? He won some Chinese hearts that day.

Fifthly: lead by example. Among leaders who move from expensive hotel suite to crystal chandelier event, Mandela would always choose his home in Qunu in the Eastern Cape, simple food and a simple lifestyle. This was not for show, but deeply felt. A leader should be close to his people. It was very bad form to enjoy wealth in a secluded palace whilst one’s people were still poor. Where sacrifice is needed for the purpose of building a nation, the leader should sacrifice before anybody else.

Lastly, and most importantly of all: moral values of right and wrong, such as the above, must underpin every decision, every way forward, every strategy.  This is of course not easy, especially when there is a war on. Though excesses and civilian casualties were part of the ANC’s armed struggle, Mandela, and indeed the ANC leadership, never condoned the targeting of civilians.  Similarly, Mandela’s government, the first ever democratic government of South Africa, regularly engaged in moral thinking and debate, and would communicate every decision to the people on that basis.

Peace was right, continued violence was wrong: ANC supporters were urged to throw their spears and guns ‘into the sea’. Reconstruction of the country through land reform, education reform and small business support were right: programmes were developed to implement these. Truth and recognition of people’s pain and trauma were right and so there was a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  If there was opposition, like that time when dissatisfied people threw stones at his visiting convoy, Mandela would step out, dismiss his bodyguards (much to their dismay) and ask what the matter was. And he would listen.

That land, education, employment and even truth turned out to be very hard to handle, or that not all Ministers and Director-Generals were equally capable in getting their work done, is beside the point. What matters is that in the Mandela years, the country knew what it wanted and where it was going, and practically all its citizens, of all colours, were committed to helping that process along. Except for a few like Ernie Els, to whom a hearty ‘good riddance’ was extended (until they repented, didn’t go, came back and reformed, as quite a few, including Els, did later.)

Perhaps the most regrettable thing about his successors Mbeki and Zuma, and their administrations, is that these lost sight of the moral discourse that had always been the backbone of the leadership of Mandela and his ANC contemporaries, Tambo, Sisulu, Kathrada, and so many others. Why the Mbeki and Zuma elites, like so many other African and world leaders, descended to a level of electioneering, greed, arms deals, ranting against perceived enemies, blaming rivals, corruption accusation ping-pong, grand standing and other empty politicking, is a mystery.  Perhaps the fact that Mandela and Tambo grew up in relative freedom, sons of nobility, prepared by elders for the daunting task of leading a persecuted people, made them as wise and unselfish as they were.  Perhaps Mandela had a point when he remarked, once, that ’27 years (in jail, EG) is a very long time to think about yourself.”

But I can only agree with Premium Times that the ‘Madiba’ example should be taken as a call to emulate by many, many leaders in the world today. (Volunteers offering to spend some time in jail to think about themselves are, I assume, free to contact this publication).

Hopefully the fact of ‘Madiba’s’ death will bring his example to life, once again, in the minds of leaders and citizens everywhere.

Ms. Groenink, a journalist and freedom of expression advocate, reports and writes for the ZAM newspaper in Netherlands

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