Even at the risk of us South Africans sounding a bit subjective about our late former President Nelson Mandela, it would not be immodest of us to say he ranks as probably among the top ten greatest leaders of all time.
It is awe-inspiring and indeed should fill us with a sense of vicarious pride to have shared the same geographical space and national identity with such a giant of history. His birthday month (July) offers us an opportunity to reflect on his values, just like we did yesterday on Mandela Day when millions, both here and internationally, practically demonstrated his values of generosity and serving others.
Critically, where we have deviated from his values, we need to retrace our steps back and rekindle in our collective sense and actions the legacy he left us with. And what did Mandela leave us with? I shall not contest the fact that he belonged to a particular political party, the African National Congress, which shaped him and upon which he himself left an imprint.
But his influence went beyond not just his political home but the borders of South Africa. Madiba taught us to fight for and identify with the oppressed and underprivileged – something historical revisionists sometimes try to erase from who he was. Standing in the dock on 20 April 1964 during the Rivonia Trial, he declared: “During my lifetime I have dedicated my life to this struggle of the African people.” Black Africans then were politically disenfranchised and he dedicated his life towards fighting for their freedom.
This alone should teach us to be prepared to fight for those who may be suffering an injustice in whatever form – be it workers getting a raw deal, women and girl children being abused, citizens in other countries being robbed of their freedom, people being left out of the mainstream economy or journalists being victimized for telling the truth. Mandela taught us that we need to take up the struggles of those who are treated unfairly.
Madiba also stood for non-racialism. The irony, of course, is that the current racists who admire him choose to be oblivious to this fact. Addressing the court in the same speech cited above, he stated: “I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination.” He had a deep conviction that “no one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin……People must learn to hate and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love….”
At a time when we the issue of racism in our country has once again made news headlines and manifested on social media platforms, Mandela’s view on the matter teaches us that racism is not a given and can be defeated. One of the saddest things about racism is that its mindset can be passed down from generation to generation- depending what we teach our children. But Madiba pointed us in the right direction on this matter: we can socialize, especially our children, out of all forms of racial prejudice by simply teaching them to love the next person.
And on bitterness and resentment, Madiba left us with some invaluable lessons. In a world that is broken, one can never run out of people to be bitter and resentful toward. For his fight for a just cause, Mandela was rewarded with 27 years in prison, disrupting his family life and successful legal career. When he left prison, he had all the reasons to be bitter and resentful. Yet he told us: “As I walked out of the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn't leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I'd still be in prison.”
He didn't deny feeling bitter and hateful but made the choice to leave it all behind. Note, no one patronizingly or insensitively told him to “move on” – just like the victims of apartheid are sometimes expected to by people who have no idea of the suffering they were subjected to. He made the choice himself. While we should learn from Madiba to be future oriented and refuse to be held back by our past, those of us who never experienced racial oppression should have the grace to accept that the “moving on” by the victims is something they will voluntarily do and at their own time. We cannot impose it.
As we celebrate the Mandela month, I fervently hope that reflecting on his values is not something that will be confined to the ordinary people but that those who lead or seek to lead society will do the same. His ethics, humility, servant leadership, prudence and respect for public resources were exemplary. May we all trace our steps back to the values the founding father of our democracy espoused?