Friday, July 18, 2008

Happy Birthday Madiba!

Today marks Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela's 90th birthday. The great man is slowed but still robust, with his characteristic grace and wit still intact. As South Africa muddles through, the country's leaders would do well to dwell on Mandela and his meaning, not merely his undeniable symbolic power, and not even the mythology that surrounds him -- in some cases rightfully -- but rather on his approach to leadership and governing.

Mandela's greatness stems not from his perfection -- he was not perfect and would be the first to recognize as much -- but rather from the humility of his approach, on his willingness to compromise, on his loyalty, and on his unparallelled integrity. As just one example of a shortcoming leading to positive action, Mandela recognized even before he had left office that he had fallen short on what would prove to be one of the country's, the region's, biggest challenges, the threat of HIV-AIDS. And so his foundation has tackled that issue head-on and in so doing has done much good on that scourge that so haunts the country.

Mandela emerged from 27 years on imprisonment by a regime that deserved no quarter. But Mandela knew that in order to accomplish his goals of a non-racial, or multi-racial South Africa with one-person, one-vote democracy, he would have to negotiate with his enemies. And so he went about establishing the conditions for negotiation, cajoling some of his more skeptical comrades while at the same time making clear to the National Party the parameters within which negotiations would happen. Mandela was not the sole, perhaps was not even the most important, negotiator for the African National Congress, but he was the most important figure in the negotiation process, and knowing this, Mandela leveraged his identity and his leadership to bring about the end result that he desired.

Nelson Mandela will not live forever, yet he will live on. the question is how he will live on: As the father of a new South Africa forged in the consensus of the Freedom Charter or as the lamented apogee of an ANC gone awry. It is too facile to speak of historical crossroads, and yet South Africa certainly seems to be dealing roughly with the post-Mandela era. Thabo Mbeki will likely leave office scorned, his absence not long lamented despite his own well-earned status as an ANC exile leader. Jacob Zuma is hardly off to a promising start as the president of the ANC, and though it appears that he and his supporters may well find a way to cause the corruption charges against him to evaporate, as the country's president Zuma seems detined to be a divider rather than a uniter. South Africa does not need another Mandela -- there can be no such thing and we've been lucky to have the one -- but what it needs is leaders who look beyond Mandela's symbolism, beyond the birthday praise, however insufficient in relation to what the man accomplished and has meant to so many, and who can capture the essence of what Mandela wanted for his country and his world.

Grown men are not supposed to have heroes, or in any case are not supposed to worship them publicly. But Mandela is my hero. And he is the hero of millions. Long may he live in the minds and hearts and actions of South Africans and people the world over. More important, long may he live.

[Crossposted at the FPA South Africa Blog and the FPA Africa Blog]


EB Soph mom said...


On behalf of EphBlog, thanks for making us aware of your journey, and posting the links. I enjoyed reading your entries, and considering the state of affairs in Z, thought it just as well that you canceled your plans to go there.
See you on EB.

Soph mom

dcat said...

Thanks, Soph Mom. I wanted to go to Zim, but it did not happen for several reasons, not the least of which being that each of my Zimbabwean friends and any Zimbabwean I ran into said the same thing: Please don't.
i did write about Zim today at the Africa Blog, the link to which is in a post above.

Thanks for following along.