Born in a small village located on the banks of the Mbashe River, South Africa. Today, 100 years later, his birth is celebrated around the world. Nelson Mandela became a legend, a Messiah for millions of people. Humble, yet principled. Stubborn, yet eager to listen. A leader, but still a man of the people. In the northern hemisphere, Mandela is often seen as a man of forgiveness, as he spoke of reconciliation with whites after apartheid. In the southern hemisphere, however, he is seen as a representative of the African values of pride, humanism, democracy, and leadership.
Five years after Mandela’s death, we saw populism, radicalization, and social unrest grow amongst us. Human rights, liberty and democracy was being undermined. But in a world, were leadership had become scarce, Mandela’s light was still shining bright for millions of people.
People are measuring today’s leaders up against Mandela, and often find them to fall terribly short. Mandela has not passed his expiry date, at least not to ordinary people. For many of today’s leaders on the other hand, Mandela seems to never have been a role model, but he should have been.
We need leaders we can respect. In the battle against poverty, oppression and populism, we need to see that we at least achieve some progress. We need the inspiration from the few, brave and principled people who refuse to bow their head against oppression. South-Africans, and the world, were in desperate need of such an inspiration in the 80’s and 90’s. Mind you, brave and principled people was not a scarce commodity in Africa at the time. Lumumba, Nyerere, Kaunda, Machel and Sankara were all role models for millions of people. But, Mandela is still, to this day, the only one who became a hero not only to his own but to a whole world. He stands in the global league of heroes like Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi, who transcended the limits of traditional party lines, political systems and government institutions, and showed the world new ways forward with courage. Showed true leadership. And among them, Mandela is the only one who had the opportunity to both lead a liberation movement, and become the elected leader of a nation afterwards.
There are several reasons why Mandela became an international hero. One was that he had an international social movement backing him. He became the living quintessence of a movement seen as spearheading the global crusade against racism and oppression. He gave the struggle a face. Furthermore, the apartheid regime helped boost his image and icon status by incarcerating him for 27 years, helping spin myths and legends about his ideas, thoughts and even his looks. And whilst African liberation movements and freedom fighters generally had tough times in the 60s and 70s, Mandela became an icon and symbol of resistance and pride for the whole continent. We can still identify Mandela’s footprints in present-day social movements across the African continent.
The reasons for Mandela’s legendary status are, however, first and foremost to be found in Mandela’s own personal stature and his principles. In the complex and difficult political process towards democracy in South-Africa, Mandela’s strength was based on his strategic and tactical skills. He was also a man of strong convictions who seldom backed down, who refused when offered to be released from prison, in exchange for abandoning the armed struggle against apartheid. He had a high respect for his leadership responsibility and the responsibility towards the people and the collective, and managed also to charm most people with his personal touch, smiles and humour and his ability to keep focus on “the cause”, rather than the people behind it, something that made it also easier to negotiate the transition and reconciliation with previous enemies in South Africa. Mandela believed in decency and that people are inherently good, something even people on the extreme, far-right respected.
Mandela, or “Madiba”, as the people of South-Africa affectionately call him, got his convictions of self-worth, liberty but also stubbornness, tested early as the only black man enrolled at his law school, and when he refused to marry the woman that his family chose for him. He carried with him his pride, but also his stubbornness from his childhood. He came from a family with modest means, but learnt diplomacy and leadership through his family’s connection to a Xhosa king in South-Africa. The English name Nelson was given to him by his teacher when he began school. He has been quoted saying that, ‘why she bestowed this particular name upon me, I have no idea.’ Mandela said that, except for life, his health and the connections to the Xhosa kingdom, the only thing his father gave him was the name Rolihlahla, “troublemaker”. The apartheid regime pointed out Mandela as their nr.1 enemy in the 60’s and the opposition branded him as the “black pimpernel”, a derogatory adaption of the fictional character the “Scarlet Pimpernel”, who evaded capture during the French Revolution. And this is how legends are born.
Mandela earned respect because of his personal qualities, as one of the few educated blacks in the struggle, and with a leadership-style based on pragmatism, collectiveness and tactical skills. He once said that his decision to transform the opposition into an armed resistance was solely based on tactics, and not ideology. The non-violent struggle of the previous ANC-leader Albert Luthuli, which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for, did not work in the 60’s, according to Mandela.
Mandela spoke for popular democracy. He said that when he grew up, he was profoundly affected by how the clan system operated. People who proclaim that democracy is a western idea is mistaken. The clan-system that was practiced in South-Africa, was consensus-oriented, and decisions were collectively made. He was proud of his heritage, but did not believe he had to pull other people down to maintain that pride. It is in this spirit that Mandela fought against oppression, racism and apartheid. When Mandela was released from prison in 1990, he repeated the same words he had said during his trial; “I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
Madiba continued his battle against oppression and racism, even after he stepped down as president of South-Africa. He spoke freely to his successors about the AIDS-epidemic in Africa and that medication should be available to people, even though his successor Mbeki was against it. He criticized people of his own party ANC for undermining democracy. He fought against corruption. And he compared the high poverty rate and growing inequality in the post-apartheid South-Africa to the evils of apartheid. He spoke for the freedom of the Palestinians. And he warned against selfishness. Mandela had what few leaders has today: the courage to make tough and unpopular decisions, even when it offended his own constituencies. He repeatedly asked people to mobilize against leaders who failed in their leadership. Promise me this, he told a trade union congress in the early 90s: do the same to us as you did to the apartheid regime if we ever start behaving like them: than you must mobilise!
Madiba brought forth the African humanistic ideal “ubuntu”, seeing yourself through the eyes of others. This is the legacy of Mandela. A service of a long walk towards freedom, justice, democracy, equal opportunity and fair distribution of resources. He underlined repeatedly that his role in the struggle was only as a representative for the people and their common cause, that he had a responsibility to the people and that it was the people who gave him strength and inspiration to fight. How many of today’s leaders can say that they actually show that kind of leadership? How many of today´s leaders can we say take that walk? Or walk what they talk? And yes, we do need a Mandela-Day, but in the spirit of true leadership, leaders should make every day a Mandela Day. That is what he would have done.