The physical Nelson Mandela is no more. The spirit of this national hero remains. The principles that he fought for remain in our minds. To revere him is not to deify him. This he would not allow, as he said himself: “I was not a messiah, but an ordinary man who had become a leader because of extraordinary circumstances”. This allows room for critique, and so many did and many will. If this is done in respect for his lifework, that is good. Students of his leadership would only grow beyond the master’s ability if they critically reviewed his life. In fact, Mandela may even have wanted to participate in the critique. I daresay it is his willingness to accept criticism that made him the compassionate man that we knew.
One of Mandela’s names is Rolihlahla. In the Xhosa language, this has more or less the following meaning: when you have a shrub or a tree and there is a branch broken in the middle of it, the act of acknowledging that broken branch and pulling it out into the open and dealing with it is what is meant by the word rolihlahla. This refers to a mindset that looks at the whole and where there is a fault to fix it and where things are right to offer praise and reward.
This name easily represents his life, what he did and how he did it. What we came to know about this man is his dedicated belief in dignified human life, in justice for all and his robust resolve for a transformed society. The main ‘broken branch’ for him was the inhuman and callous state his beloved South African society was in. He used his life to fix that which was broken in society: “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 together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal I hope to live for and achieve. But if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” This was his battle cry against lamented ingrained beliefs of racial superiority or entitlement. This was irrespective of whether the ‘shrub’ was his own or was cultivated in another garden.
When, during the CODESA negotiations, this fight reached a particular stage, all peoples of the country experienced a sense of a new future, in spite of all the uncertainties. The integrity, the honesty and the forthrightness with which Mandela participated in sculpting our new constitution signalled a message of hope for all. When President FW de Klerk called for a whites-only referendum on whether to continue with the negotiating process or not, 69% voted in favour of continuing the process. Many white people then acknowledged – with the broken branch in the open and the alternative way forward presented– that it was time to change direction and heal our society.
We so often speak of Madiba Magic. My own sense of this is the following: the core of his ‘magic’ is the fact that he was the first and still is the only statesman this country has had (some may argue for Jan Smuts as well, but this is debatable). Allow me to explain, using my own definition. When one has a statesman mindset, the love for one’s country as a whole is of a much higher order than the love for one’s political party. This is true for those leading companies, churches or any institution acting as part of a whole. This does not negate one’s love and dedication to the ideals of one’s own party, or own culture for that matter. It does however require that when the party’s ideals and objectives are in conflict with that which is good for the country, the latter takes priority. This is Mandela’s magic. He broke through that political mindset that only cares for his own and he embraced a mindset in which most South Africans experienced a psychological safety. In the space of a statesman’s mind we felt cared for in spite of our past and of our differences.
A political mindset would never achieve this. Roger Whittaker, the folksinger, says to a crowd just before he starts one of his songs: “Politicians are like a bunch of bananas. They are all yellow, they all hang together and there is not a straight one amongst them”. Flippant as that may sound, it resonates when we, at the advent of the elections, watch how our political leaders act, how those who need to care for others only care for themselves, employing empty promises to degrade people to voting fodder. To the statesman, political life is about a moral philosophy, and has to do with ethics. The political mindset cannot accommodate this; it sits uncomfortably in that particular mind.
Mandela’s ‘magic’ carried a promise we long for but mourn for going forward. His statesmanship brought the most crucial ingredient needed for building a new society, i.e. trust. He set a high standard for himself, for the constitution, for the country, for our sports teams and more. We could relate to that and it mobilised the will in us to participate and build the country. As citizens, we appreciate transparency and forthrightness. We bemoan hidden agendas, lies, self-righteous corruption, and especially power that is centred in a single entity that dominates others and does not allow its power to be distributed to the broader society. Built into every government are the seeds of destruction; this is inherent in the concept of power. Power may reach a point where the concern for the wellbeing of citizens diminishes; governments start acting more and more in their own self-interest while exploiting people to achieve their own selfish goals. In an educated democracy, this will not be allowed. Responsible citizens, who believe in the freedom that Mandela professed, will not fall victim to the glib talk of power-hungry politicians because they know that would mean psychological defeat and eventually the end of the nation (Ibn Khaldun). If we are gullible, we will truly mourn.
The Madiba ‘magic’ took the long view and somehow, intuitively or proactively, settled our fears in, for example, the way that he promoted a constitution that is fair to all and stayed in and with the process to make it come true. In 1993, with the assassination of Chris Hani, he stepped forward on national television and said: “Tonight I am reaching out to every single South African, black and white, from the very depths of my being. A white man, full of prejudice and hate, came to our country and committed a deed so foul that our whole nation now teeters on the brink of disaster. A white woman, of Afrikaner origin, risked her life so that we may know, and bring to justice, this assassin.” A statesman, with these words brought stability to an environment that could easily have exploded into violence, fuelling the selfish passions of the politically minded. We as citizens ought seriously to search for the statesman’s mindset when we recommend or vote for leaders. In the absence of this, we will pine for a long time.
He walked away from vengeance and had tea with his former enemies; he reconciled and sometimes physically embraced those who persecuted him. It is as if he understood the rainbow nation not in its racial colours but in its value colours. With genius strokes of empathy, realising the impact of people’s values in themselves, and the reality gained from their own experiences, he reached out to friend and foe as human beings. This was done consistently and not at politically expedient moments. Confucius firmly believed that human nature is not perfect, but is capable of being changed by the example of sincere virtue. Similarly, he maintained that a fair and benevolent leader and government can transform society. In the presence of such statesman-like behaviour, more people grow the confidence and courage and are mobilised to change and to confront difficult national and personal matters of importance. Paulo Freire, the Brazilian educator, believed that “the act of oppression dehumanises both parties and that, once liberated, there is a danger of individuals repeating the injustice they have experienced. In effect, the oppressed themselves might become oppressors.” To avoid this danger, society needs citizens with a statesman’s mindset. In the absence thereof, we mourn.
The one who embarked on this treacherous journey was a young passionate man with a sense of justice and much courage. He made many mistakes along this journey – collaborator and antagonist will attest. He allowed, however, his environment to influence him; reflectively shaping his inner theatre with events and readings. At the end of his life, we bade farewell to a man of courage and compassionate wisdom. This exemplary statesmanship, in a current lamented context of flawed statesmanship, provides us with hope, the type of hope which inspires us to take a page from William Ernest Henley who courageously states: "My head is bloody, but unbowed. I thank whatever gods may be for my unconquerable soul". … and then pray for wisdom to act with this same indomitable soul – for the sake of Africa and for the world.
Frik Landman is the CEO of USB Executive Development (USB-ED).