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Nelson Mandela: a man who showed that individuals can make a difference

William Gumede pays tribute to the anti-apartheid leader – and contrasts his example to today's ANC

December 5, 2013
8 min read

mandela-wallSomeone who occupies a position of authority and holds and exercises power is not always necessarily a leader. Leadership is about the quality of an individual’s actions, behaviour and vision. During the “dark times” of apartheid and colonialism, Nelson Mandela’s generation offered a kind of leadership which was apparent in the quality of their actions.

The success of the African National Congress as a liberation movement during colonialism and apartheid rested on visionary leadership, on striving to be racially, ethnically and class inclusive, being accountable to its members, practising inclusive democracy and the exemplary personal behaviour of its leaders. Mandela’s own leadership during the “dark times” personified these values.

Nelson Mandela and democratic morality

The failure of most African liberation-movements-turned-governments is the moral corruption of the leaders and parties who hold power, even if they have a just cause, impeccable “struggle” credentials that give them the moral high ground and the right policies in government. Suddenly finding themselves with state power and all its trappings – from a position of extreme poverty, powerlessness and marginalisation to access to fabulous wealth, unlimited power, often over life, death and the fortunes of others – has corrupted many liberation-movements-turned-governments, whether in Africa or Eastern Europe.

Often leaders and parties have seen themselves, because of their new-found power, not only as above the law, but above the strictures of good, responsible personal and moral behaviour. Mandela, when he was president of South Africa, was that rare leader who did not allow new-found state power to corrupt his personal and political morals and behaviour.

Amilcar Cabral, one of the great thinkers of African liberation ideology, said that the success of African liberation movements that become governments depends more than anything else on the personal moral behaviour, decency and honesty of their leaders and members.

What kind of morality are we talking about? In the context of political parties, governments and leaders, we are talking about democratic morality which transcends narrow religious and cultural traditions and ethnicities. Implicit in democratic morality is personal behaviour that is both ethical and honest, a sense of duty, and governance according to the values of the constitution and in the interests of the widest number of people rather than for personal enrichment or the interests of a small elite. In practice, democratic morality means that where traditional and cultural practices undermine democratic values, individual dignity and rights, such practices should be set aside.

Mandela’s moral leadership

The ANC’s success was to turn the struggle against apartheid into a moral struggle: in fact, to turn it into a global moral struggle. This strategy could not have succeeded without leaders with huge moral authority who, by their individual ethical and moral conduct, reinforced the moral dimensions of the struggle. The current reality is, embarrassingly, quite the opposite.

This is illustrated in the wide difference between the moral authority of Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo or Walter Sisulu – all members of the Mandela generation – and the murkiness of Jacob Zuma, the ANC president, and the populism of Julius Malema, the expelled ANC Youth League president. The fact that the morally flawed Zuma could be elected to the presidency by the ANC is in itself testimony to the moral regression of the party. Unable to secure respect by behaving with integrity, Zuma’s supporters, specifically the SACP in KwaZulu-Natal, have called for a law to “protect the dignity” of the president. In contrast, because of his moral integrity, personified by his exemplary personal behaviour as leader, Mandela was respected even by his opponents.

Mandela’s democratic leadership

In the ANC of the 1940s, 50s and early 60s – in which Mandela cut his political teeth – the democratic spirit was premium. The ANC’s Youth League statement of policy which was developed in the mid-1940s called for “true democracy” in South Africa and Africa. As far back as the 1960s, Mandela had strong views on the kind of democracy he envisaged for a free South Africa. He argued for a parliamentary system, a Bill of Rights, the doctrine of separation of powers, as well as the independence and impartiality of the judiciary which “never fails to arouse my admiration”. In Mandela’s ANC decisions were made through consultation, negotiation and discussion and recognised the equity of all.

The strength of the ANC during the Mandela era was its ability to portray itself as a more racially inclusive alternative to the racially segregated colonial and apartheid ruling parties of South Africa. Mandela did not respond to narrow Afrikaner nationalism with narrow African nationalism. His African nationalism was far more embracing and inclusive and non-racial in outlook than the narrow Africanism espoused by many leaders in the ANC and ANC Youth League today.

The ANC’s success was to turn the struggle against apartheid into a moral struggle: in fact, to turn it into a global moral struggle

In his autobiography, written clandestinely in the Robben Island prison in 1974, Mandela appealed to the best of African traditions, culture and custom to argue that “a minority was not to be crushed by a majority”. Mandela, while a fierce opponent of apartheid, was also a fierce opponent of the abuses, corruption and autocratic behaviour exhibited by fellow black leaders. For him, black solidarity stopped when his fellow black leaders behaved undemocratically or were corrupt or uncaring.

The Mandela generation was more politically honest to themselves, their party and their supporters. They did not go for easy populism. For the likes of Mandela, Luthuli, Tambo and Sisulu, decency, politeness and respect for others, even if one disagreed with them, were fundamental values. In reading the speeches of Mandela in this collection one is struck by his honesty about his own political shortcomings. Mandela had the ability of self-reflection, which is only possible if one is open to criticism. Sadly, the current generation of ANC leaders is more defensive – perhaps because they know that they are not very accomplished.

New Mandelas are needed for our uncertain times

The expelled ANC Youth League president Julius Malema is not a factory fault. He represents a new generation of ANC members who have come through the party’s kindergarten system, from its Pioneers, to Youth League, to full adult membership. They bring with them new ways of behaviour: slinging insults at those with whom they differ, double-speak, claiming that they are advancing the interests of the poor but living opulent lifestyles using the very resources meant for such an advancement and often generally seeing the ANC as a career.

They have been fed on the same struggle slogans, songs and language as Mandela’s ANC. However, these have now become empty tokens which are often used to camouflage undemocratic behaviour, self-enrichment and self-advancement. The fact that the ANC party leadership factory appears to be now increasingly churning out Mini-Me Malemas, Mini-Me Zumas and Mini-Me John Blocks, is a clear indication that Mandela’s anc is now a fading memory. South Africa is a broken society, battling with the consequences of broken families, communities and individuals. Addressing these issues demands extraordinarily capable leadership, fresh ideas and renewal. Yet the ANC, Africa’s oldest liberation movement, appears to have run out of ideas, quality leadership and the inspiration to deal with the complex problems our country faces in an increasingly complex, dangerous and volatile world.

We cannot succumb to the temptation to retreat to the old slogans, rhetoric and ideas of the past to deal with the complex problems of the present. Getting South Africa moving forward requires a mobilisation of the energy, talents and ideas of all South Africans, over a wide front, no matter their colour. It demands a more inclusive approach – like that of Mandela’s generation.

Nelson Mandela shows that individuals – whatever the odds against them – can make a difference. To follow Mandela’s example, individuals must become more involved in public activities, whether it is sitting on school boards, attending meetings of local municipalities or supporting community organisations and charities with money and time.

Within the ANC family, conscientious leaders, members and supporters must create a strong counterbalance, perhaps in the form of a pro-democracy lobby, to the increasingly populist tendency that is exploiting the vacuum of ideas, leadership and direction in South Africa. Outside the ANC, individuals, civil society and opposition parties must also do so. Such coalitions were pioneered by the Mandela generation and the blueprints of the society they envisaged would spring from them can be seen in Mandela’s speeches and writings from the 1950s and 1960s.

Mandela’s generation overcame “dark times” because of their honesty, their decency, their pragmatism, the participatory, consensual and inclusive nature of their solution-seeking methods, their openness to criticism and their emphasis on wide-ranging debate before decisions. Mandela’s timeless revolutionary thought contains the seeds that can help us overcome our contemporary troubles.

This article is adapted from William Gumede’s introduction to the new edition of No Easy Walk to Freedom, a collection of Nelson Mandela’s articles, speeches and letters, published by Kwela Books