Hyperboles are surely acceptable when we speak of the great man? Possibly the greatest political leader in our modern history? Certainly it would be hard not to include Nelson Mandela alongside Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr on a list of great leaders. While South Africa and the world mourn, we should remember Nelson Mandela for his two key attributes: First, he should be remembered for his ability to seek out compromise, peace and nation-building where none seemed possible to almost all around him. Second, and possibly understated in the eulogies about the man, is that he was a highly capable and astute politician. First and foremost, he behaved and acted with the wile and guile of a seasoned politician—but, crucially, his decisions and moves were underpinned and anchored by possibly the highest level of ethical and moral leadership the world has seen. It is the latter that has garnered much of the deserving attention and accolades of the world.
Three Phases of Leadership
As part of the leadership of the African National Congress (ANC), Mandela was at the forefront of the fight against racial oppression by forming a strong multiracial alliance against the apartheid rulers. One hallmark of the ANC’s ongoing protests was the Rivonia Trial in 1962, where Mandela and others were convicted to life imprisonment. The 27 years Nelson Mandela spent on Robben Island became a period of introspection, strategy and leadership during which he steadily cut away at the power of the minority-run government. It is not often appreciated that, during this period, a significant number of global leaders in the West viewed Mandela as a terrorist and communist.
Mandela’s second phase of leadership was arguably the most important for South Africa. In the period leading to the great negotiated peaceful settlement—which the world today so correctly admires—Nelson Mandela formulated a vision for South Africa. This vision of a “rainbow nation,” where the humanity, language, race and gender of all its citizens is to be recognized and respected, became the battle cry of Madiba. He won us over through sheer determination, political mastery, public displays of his own humanity and, of course, brilliant foresight. Who can forget how he reacted to the creation of Orania, a whites-only town in South Africa? He flew in by helicopter to have tea with one of its adherents—Betsie Verwoerd, widow of Hendrik Verwoerd, one of the architects of apartheid! This combination of political astuteness and overwhelming humanity was powerful enough to deliver South Africa from one of the most vicious and evil regimes the world has seen to a place of peace and stability.
To lead South Africa only for one presidential term and then move to the world stage and generate that same leadership at a global level—thereby setting a standard for ethical and moral leadership in politics—is surely the third most incredible aspect of Africa’s great son. Taking center stage in world politics, and providing moral and ethical leadership that caused world leaders to jostle to seek his company, advice and support was breathtaking to observe. He spoke with authority, yet led with humanity and, most of all, humility.
I will be indulgent in concluding with a personal reflection: I was a student, bound by revolutionary anti-apartheid anger, as were many of my cohort, the day Mandela was released. I listened to the great man give his first speech after his release from prison, as one of thousands who had waited for him in Cape Town’s Grand Parade. He spoke clearly and eloquently, of course, but the words that stood out for me were his first: “I greet you all in the name of peace, democracy and freedom for all.” I knew then, that Madiba would deliver us to freedom.