Nelson Mandela: A Lesson in Leadership

This week, specifically on Thursday, July 18, the world will once again literally stand still for at least 67 minutes in honour of Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggle hero and former president of post-apartheid South Africa.


On that day, the world will unite to mark the birthday of Mandela, a world revered African leader. This is one honour that Mandela has enjoyed since 2009, when the United Nations, UN, took the decision to set aside July 18 as Mandela Day, a day to honour the man in recognition of his contributions to world freedom, equality of all races and justice. To mark the day, people are enjoined to devote 67 minutes of their time to helping others and this represents the 67 years Mandela gave to the struggle for social justice.


But the UN day is not the only honour Mandela has received in his lifetime. He has been honoured at different times in different parts of the world. In 1990 for instance, he was given the Bharat Ratna Award by the Indian government and also received the Soviet Union’s Lenin Peace Prize. Two years later, the Turkish government awarded him the Ataturk Peace Award, which though he initially rejected, citing human rights violations in Turkey, he later accepted in 1999. In the same 1992, Pakistan honoured him with Nishan-e-Pakistan, the country’s highest civil service award. After his Nobel Peace Prize in 1993, Mandela, in 2001, was made an honorary Canadian citizen, the first living person to be so honoured.


Unlike some prophets that are not recognised in their own land, Mandela’s unprecedented feats were duly recognised by South Africans. Having been honoured with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1993 by George W. Bush, former United States President, the city of Johannesburg, in 2004, bestowed the Freedom of the City on him, which is the city’s highest honour.


Indeed, Mandela is truly loved and respected not only in South Africa, but also all over the world. Little wonder after he took ill and was hospitalised at the Pretoria Heart Hospital, South Africans have been visiting and praying for his quick recovery. But it is not only the country that is praying for him. Speaking recently in New York, Ban Ki-moon, UN secretary-general, said: “I know our thoughts and prayers are with Nelson Mandela, his family and loved ones, all South Africans and people across the world who have been inspired by his remarkable life and example. Let us all show similar conviction and sense of purpose today in working to improve well-being and opportunity for all Africans.”


With this statement, the UN helmsman may just have hit the bull’s-eye regarding why Mandela is so loved by the whole world. Many people view Mandela through different prisms and reasons abound why he is much loved. The love and respect people have for Mandela stem from his selfless service as he fought against the dehumanising apartheid policy in his home country, South Africa. As a young man, the injustices meted out to black Africans in his home country turned him to a freedom fighter who never stopped fighting until he won the battle. For 67 years, 27 of which were spent in prison, Madiba, as he is fondly called in his Xhosa clan, fought white supremacists who treated his people with so much disdain that there were borderlines beyond which they could not cross in their own land.


The story of the struggles and deprivations that characterised Mandela’s childhood and growing up days was aptly encapsulated in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. In the first page of chapter 11 of the 63-page book, Mandela paints a succinct picture of what life looked like for black South Africans at that time: “To be an African in South Africa means that one is politicised from the moment of one’s birth, whether one acknowledges it or not. An African child is born in an Africans Only hospital, taken home in an Africans Only bus, lives in an Africans Only area, and attends Africans Only schools, if he attends school at all. When he grows up, he can hold Africans Only jobs, rent a house in Africans Only townships, ride Africans Only trains and be stopped at any time of the day or night and be ordered to produce a pass, failing which he will be arrested and thrown in jail. His life is circumscribed by racist laws and regulations that cripple his growth, dim his potential, and stunt his life…”


Finding himself in such an oppressive environment, Mandela, as he grew up, resolved to fight and change the barbaric system. “I had no epiphany, no singular revelation, no moment of truth, but a steady accumulation of a thousand slights, a thousand indignities, a thousand unremembered moments, produced in me an anger, a rebelliousness, a desire to fight the system that imprisoned my people…,” he further notes.


To fight the system that held nothing good for his people, the freedom fighter had to go into politics. From the African National Congress, ANC, youth league, which he co-founded, he, in association with the South African Communist Party, co-founded the militant Umkhonto we Sizwe, translated as “spear of the nation.”  The militant group led a bombing campaign against government targets. Their activities made late Margaret Thatcher of the United Kingdom to describe Mandela as a terrorist. But the bombing campaign was for a reason. It was as a result of the killing of 69 members of the ANC and Pan African Congress, PAC, by the police for burning the passes they were legally obliged to carry during an anti-pass campaign. In solidarity with his deceased colleagues, Mandela publicly burnt his pass.


Obviously angered, he launched a campaign of economic sabotage, which led in 1962 to his arrest and conviction on charges of sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow the government. Though he was released, Mandela was in 1964 sentenced to life imprisonment and that was the beginning of his 27 years’ incarceration. After spending 18 years in Robben Island Prison, he was transferred to Pollsmoor Prison on the mainland in 1982. Talking about his experience sometime ago, he said: “In prison, you come face to face with time. There is nothing more terrifying.” Mandela was released in 1990 by the government of President Frederick Willem de Klerk following mounting international pressure on South Africa.


Considering the deprivations and hardship he suffered in apartheid South Africa as well as in prison, many would have expected that Mandela would seize the opportunity of his election as South Africa’s president in 1994 to get even at those who made his life miserable. But he did not do so. As a leader, he put into action the democratic ideologies he had fought for. He made the country a home for everybody regardless of colour or race. Tolerance, no doubt, was his watchword and he was a president of all citizens. This, says Osita Agbu, a professor at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, NIIA, is one of the qualities he admired the most in Mandela. Rather than seek his own pound of flesh, Agbu said Mandela devoted his energy to peace and reconciliation. “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 in harmony and with equal opportunity. 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,” Agbu quoted Mandela to have said.


To ensure true reconciliation of citizens, Mandela oversaw the formation of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission set up to investigate crimes committed under apartheid by both the government and the ANC. His charisma, self-deprecating sense of humour and lack of bitterness over his harsh treatment won him an extraordinary global appeal. But such level of tolerance is alien to some African countries, including Nigeria. For instance, in recent weeks, political observers have accused Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan of having hand in the crisis rocking Rivers State. Following a political disagreement between Jonathan and Chibuike Amaechi, Rivers State governor, the President, despite his denials, is believed to be using every means within his reach, including the apparatus of state such as the police, to cause mayhem in Rivers State.


Mandela is the exact opposite of such a character portrait of desperate leadership. He did more than absorb all shades of opinion in South Africa during his administration as president. He carried out a wide range of social reforms aimed at reducing long-entrenched social and economic disparity in the country. For instance, he introduced free health care for all children under the age of six alongside pregnant and breastfeeding mothers making use of public sector health facilities.


Faced with shortage of housing for the poor, and slum townships blighting major cities, his government also created a Reconstruction and Development Programme, which invested in essential social services such as housing and health care. In the spirit of justice and equity, Mandela’s government also introduced parity in grants for communities, including disability grants, child maintenance grants, and old-age pensions. His government also put in place laws to ensure fairness in the treatment of workers.


In a continent where leaders embrace the sit-tight syndrome, many would have expected Mandela to go for a second term of office especially considering how much he suffered to bring apartheid to an end in South Africa. But again, Mandela did the unexpected by leaving office after five years at a time when his counterparts in other countries of the continent, who perhaps had done lesser things for their countries, refused to leave the stage for other actors. Many leaders in Africa erroneously believe that their countries revolve around them and that exiting the office would amount to the collapse of such nations. In Uganda for instance, Yoweri Museveni has ruled the country for 27 years having been made president in 1986. To ensure that nobody questions him, he amended the constitution and abolished the presidential term limits so he can be in office for as long as he wants.


He may have learnt one or two tricks from Togo. Reputed as Africa’s longest serving head of state as at 2005 when he died in office, late Gnassingbe Eyadema ruled Togo continuously for 38 years. Perhaps, if he had not died in office when he did, he probably may still be in office till date. Currently, Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwean president, is trying hard to match his record. The 89-year-old Mugabe has ruled Zimbabwe since the country’s independence in 1980, and is seeking to extend his 33-year-old rule for another five years with his involvement in the country’s forthcoming general elections. At his age, Mugabe is Africa’s oldest president and the third longest serving president after Angola’s José Eduardo dos Santos and Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo. Santos has been Angola’s president for 34 years, having been in office since 1979. The same is true with Mbasogo who took office in 1979. The constitution grants Equatorial Guinea’s president wide powers, including the power to rule by decree. Most domestic and international observers consider his regime to be one of the most corrupt, ethnocentric, oppressive and undemocratic in the world. In fact, following his style of leadership, the state-operated radio in July 2003 declared Mbasogo “god” who is “in permanent contact with the Almighty” and “can decide to kill without anyone calling him to account and without going to hell.”


While many of these African leaders clinging desperately to office are quick to point at what they went through to “liberate” their country, it is important to note that Mandela’s decision to serve only one term of office was not because he did not suffer any pains in the course of his incarceration and struggles against apartheid in South Africa. While in prison, Mandela lost his place as a father and husband in his family. His incarceration was actually cited as one of the reasons his marriage to Evelyn Mase, his first wife, ended in a divorce.


The same was largely cited in his divorce with Winnie Madikizela, his second wife. Again, Mandela was denied his role as a father. Zindziswa, his second daughter, was only 18 months when he was incarcerated and while in prison, Zenani, his daughter, was given away in marriage. He was also denied the opportunity of attending the burial of his mother and eldest son, both of whom died while he was in prison.


So, what was it that prepared Mandela for the role of selfless struggle and service? The answer is simple. He had seen humiliation and so was ready to stop such humiliation. He also chose the right course of study to achieve this. Born on July 18, 1918 in the village of Mvezo in Umtatu, eastern cape of South Africa, into the family of Nosekeni Fanny and Gadla Henry Mphakanyiswa, a local chief and counsellor to the Thembu royal family, which ruled the Transkei region, Mandela was given the name, Rolihlahla Dalibhunga. Rolihlahla colloquially means “troublemaker” in his Xhosa clan and that was exactly what he was in the opinion of the white apartheid policy promoters, who obviously misunderstood his intentions. He attended a Methodist school at age seven where his teacher gave him the name, Nelson.


With the demise of his father while he was nine, Mandela was placed in the care of Jongintaba Dalindyebo, acting regent of the Thembu clan, who raised him alongside his son, Justice, and Nomafu, daughter. At the Methodist mission school, he studied English, Xhosa, History and Geography. Despite his education, Mandela’s love for tradition and Africa was intact and grew even stronger as he listened to the tales told by elderly visitors to the palace.


To successfully achieve his goal of liberating his people, Mandela chose to study Law. Having finished his secondary education at Clarkebury Boarding Institute in Engcobo, a Western-style institution, he moved to the University of Fort Hare, an elite black institution in Alice, eastern Cape Town, where he studied English, Anthropology, Politics, Native Administration and Roman Dutch Law. It was there he became friend with Oliver Tambo, with whom he later set up South Africa’s first black law firm. His career as a lawyer immensely helped in his fight against apartheid.


And he was never tired of doing good. Even after retiring from active politics, Mandela still devoted most of his retirement to charitable causes. He became an advocate for a variety of social and human rights organisations apart from setting up his own organisations to help the less privileged. For instance, the Nelson Mandela Invitation Charity Golf tournament has raised over R20 million for children’s charities since its inception in 2000. In addition, Mandela also supported the SOS Children’s Village, an international organisation dedicated to raising orphaned and abandoned children. On his 89th birthday, he formed The Elders, a group of leading world figures, to offer their expertise and guidance “to tackle some of the world’s toughest problems.” But his most recent intervention came early in 2005, following the death of his eldest surviving son, Makgatho, who died of AIDS. Following this tragedy, he urged South Africans to talk more freely about HIV/AIDS “to make it appear like a normal illness.” Through his three foundations, which included Nelson Mandela Foundation, Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund and Nelson Rhodes Foundation, Madiba puts smiles on the faces of the downtrodden.


In addition to his charity organisations, Mandela also devoted his post-service years to his family to make up for the lost years in prison. Having divorced Winnie, he got married during his 80th birthday to Graça Machel, widow of Samora Machel, late president of Mozambique. In all, he had six children, three of who are dead and 17 grandchildren. While Zenani is currently the country’s ambassador to Argentina, Mandla, his grandson, is a parliament member and a traditional chief who was recently stripped of his title following his exhumation of the bodies of Mandela’s three children, which he reburied in his village, Mvezo.


Love him or hate him, Mandela no doubt, has been able to build enviable legacies which his admirers say should be emulated by other African leaders. The UN secretary general described him as “one of the giants of the 20th century” who played a leading international role in fighting apartheid in South Africa. Bandile Masuku, spokesperson of ANC youth league, who told the magazine, last week, that the country is proud of him for all he did for them, said he is worthy of emulation.  “He contributed a lot in bringing unity to the country and South Africa will always be grateful to him. We hope to emulate him,” Masuku said. Agbu, who described him as a servant of the people, who is ready to lay down his life for his people and for humanity, said: “When I think of Mandela, what comes to my mind is an icon, someone worthy of emulation. A depiction in the best of the black man and of the humankind.”


Arguing that getting another Mandela may be difficult though not impossible, the professor urged other African leaders, especially in Nigeria, to emulate the selflessness of the former South African leader so that “we can undertake the kind of changes we need in the country to restructure our governance system in an inclusive way.” Collins Nosa Atohengbe, a South African-based Nigerian journalist, corroborates this view. Extolling Mandela’s courage and selfless sacrifice, he reiterated that the freedom fighter, right from the onset, presented himself as a leader who was never hungry for office but rather had his eyes on ensuring that governance and political control returned to the people of South Africa through the instrumentalities of a proper democracy. Mark Adesanmi, president, National Association of Yoruba Descendants of Southern Africa and principal, Lagola Property Consulting, South Africa, could not agree less. He stressed that Mandela put the atmosphere of harmony and tolerance that reign in South Africa today in place.


As a result of his outstanding performance, Bill Clinton, former US president, during his visit to Mandela as he celebrated his 94th birthday in 2012, remarked that he was honoured to be the president of his country at the same time Mandela was a leader. “It was a great honour for me to serve as a president of America while Mandela was president of the Republic of South Africa,” Clinton said.


If other African leaders could toe the line created by Mandela, analysts believe that the continent will be a better place. Talking about Nigeria in particular, Atohengbe, who noted that, “what has happened in Nigeria so far would have led to disintegration if it had happened elsewhere,” pointed out that some of our leaders do not merit their offices. “We have people (in Nigeria) who have no political or moral qualification to hold any office parading themselves as leaders simply because they have been able to amass wealth through questionable means and used that to either get themselves elected or become political godfathers,” Atohengbe said.


Mandela is one African leader who does not believe in trading power for money. This is also why President Barack Obama, during his recent visit to South Africa, encouraged leaders in the continent and, of course, around the world to follow the former South African president’s example of “country before self.” Adesanmi, who joked that the next edition of the English dictionary would have Mandela as a new name that will be defined as service, also called on other African leaders to serve while in office and not seek to be served.


Little wonder that since he was hospitalised on June 8, 2013 and even as he clocks 95 this Thursday, the world has continued to pray that the Madiba recovers and lives much longer. But should he exit the world stage now, Adesanmi says he will be remembered for his selfless services to his country and humanity at large.

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