Nelson Mandela: In the Twilight Zone

At this moment, it is not quite clear whether the past South African president has moved out of impending danger to his life. Some time back, he was admitted to hospital once again after several bouts of ill health. On getting the news that he was in hospital this time due to a serious lung infection, people from South Africa and from all over the world have been praying that he recovers from it. People of South Africa in particular are adamant in their conviction that he should not depart from life. There is a lot of faith and love in this hope entertained by a whole population: they do not want to let the string of sympathy binding them together to be severed by fate.

This feeling grips the South African nation despite his having left office fourteen years ago. Yet, never did he aspire in the interval since then to get close to the trappings of power. Nor did he tell successors how they should do their job. Yes, he resented publicly the lack of decorum and want of earnest on one occasion on the part of his immediate successor, Thabo Mbeki. But that was because he had a culture of self-discipline that could not brook offending established protocol.

When he left power, he handed over to his successors a united country. That’s no longer as true as it was before. An emerging sense of tribalism has been surfacing up of late. It is a pity that racism has been rearing its head once again in South Africa today. The African National Congress (ANC) which carried on in power after him is more divided now than ever it has been, pointing out to an inherent weakening of the unifying spirit Mandela had successfully infused all around during his days. In the face of such happenings, there is a creeping fear in the South African psyche that his precious legacy of a “rainbow nation” united in the face of economic and social adversity in the quest of a better tomorrow, may run the risk of being lost. That’s one reason why they are holding out to him, a man of mettle who kept the country united in the face of its uncertain destiny.

A decision-maker of a rare kind

It was in 1994 that he was elected as South Africa’s first black president in one of the last remaining colonial outposts on the continent. This was after a long number of years of struggle against a white minority rule rooted in repression – the apartheid regime which ruled the country ruthlessly on the notion of racial superiority. Nelson Mandela had himself been a victim of this system, having been confined to bitter, inhuman and 27 long years of imprisonment on wind-swept Robben Island, near the Cape. At that time, South Africa had been tottering on the brink of collapse, a country ready to descend into the anarchy of an enormous racial tension. It was the overturning culmination of the long march to freedom. This event of bringing a black man to power after so many years of racial oppression brought amidst the black population both a sense of relief and bitter resentment against those at whose hands it had been treated worse than chattel.

Nelson Mandela did the most incredible thing then as he ascended to power: he called on white and black people to reconcile. This came as an anti-climax to the seething feeling of revenge which inhabited the hearts of the overwhelming majority black population of South Africa at the time. It also had the effect of cooling down the feeling of alienation and the sense of serious apprehension about the future which had gripped the minds of white South Africans at the unfolding political drama. By this act of deft manoeuvring of an otherwise explosive situation, South Africa was averting a potentially damaging civil war which many had foreseen coming in the aftermath of the demise of the tough regime of apartheid. Such a call could only have come from a generous and liberated heart endowed with a vision to the future. In this single flash decision, Nelson Mandela brought a whole nation off the brink of anarchy and, by the same token, spared South Africa a descent into hell so many other African nations had unthinkingly embarked upon before, once they were seized by the madness and arrogance of power after liberation or election.

His Magnanimity brought was acknowledged
by the whole world

This self-same spirit of moderation marked the man throughout his first and only tenure of the country’s highest constitutional post. Rather than snatching to himself alone the limelight for the emerging consensual rule in South Africa, he adopted collegiate decision-making along with his colleagues to let reason and wisdom take the upper hand on what would have otherwise melted away into chaotic irrationality and vindictive retaliation. He proved to be the right manager of South Africa in the right context.

He did not allow himself to get carried away into the thicket of micromanagement to right things that had gone wrong over so many years of white dominance. He turned his sight instead on the bigger picture and employed his better judgment and common sense to steer South Africa into a brighter future than what its past history might have prepared it for. At the peak of his popularity in South Africa and in the big wide world besides, he decided to relinquish power at the end of his first term in 1999 despite pressing demands that he should continue. In so doing, he unwittingly perhaps set an example that many political leaders of Africa have found it hard to emulate – to refresh leadership as a spur to new ideas, better hopes. During this single tenure, he had laid down the foundation of a sound and globally respected South African nation governed by trusted hands and grounded in the rule of law. Henceforth, when other nations spoke of engaging with Africa, they had South Africa as a prime reference of the new stage that was being raised on the continent.

None of his contemporaneous leaders earned so much domestic and international esteem and respect as he did on assuming high office and even after leaving it. By his irreproachable conduct during his tenure of office and after leaving it for good, unswayed by all the honours being conferred upon him – including a Nobel Prize for Peace — he gave the brilliant credentials on which South Africa’s future needed to be constructed.

Even to this perhaps his last moments now as he wrestles with sickness, no other global leader has won as much admiration and real affection from the world’s masses as he has done. This was not because he adopted a soft or yielding stance to go on accommodating all sorts of nonsenses that would have undermined the fabric of his society or the respect in which his country was to be held. Indeed, he was tough when the occasion demanded it just to make his entourage understand that he operated with a lucid and objective mind of his own. He told President Clinton, while the latter was on a visit to South Africa that he (Mandela) did not have to be told by anybody (Clinton) who his friends should be, responding to a low-key reproach that he had actually befriended some political leaders America had low regard for.

His style of leadership seeped into the whole framework of administration

The bonhomie Nelson Mandela imparted by his exceptionally sober conduct of public affairs in South Africa permeated all levels of decision-making. It was contagious. In those post-apartheid days when we were busy fostering closer ties for Mauritius with the regional economic bloc, the Southern African Development Community (SADC), I was a frequent visitor to South Africa as Chairperson of the Eastern and Southern African Group of Financial Regulators. Colleagues, whether white or black, who I discussed with over meetings were highly competent, cheerful, positive, constructive and looking to the future rather than to the past.

You could see in the eyes of your interlocutors the same sense of forward confidence and a ready willingness to leave behind the useless baggage of the acrimonious past as we went on deciding in common to go out and embrace the high standards of professional conduct that the world was expecting of developing countries like ours. We felt a sense of purpose in all we undertook. Mandela’s tall shadow of a peerless statesman that Africa had produced conferred upon all a cool confidence that better days lay ahead of us.

Moral authority is mightier than political authority

As his health has kept deteriorating of late, people have been finding it increasingly difficult to accept that Nelson Mandela might pass away. Yet, at the ripe age of 94, this should not have been so difficult to concede. People want to hold on to him, notwithstanding that he does not wield any temporal power that could have adversely affected them at his death. Why has such a nationwide feeling persisted despite all the odds?

For all one can surmise from outside of South Africa regarding the continuing attachment to him of his countrymen and women at the present even when faced with the inevitability of death some time or other, there is no “unfinished business” that Nelson Mandela is leaving behind, requiring him to extend his earthly sojourn to complete the task at hand. But in the eyes of the South African, there is another dimension to this possible loss, which explains the longing after Nelson Mandela.

Irrationally perhaps, many South Africans have been longing for him to stay on in life so that he could inspire in those who are now in charge of the country’s affairs, the deeper values and sense of purpose with which he (Mandela) carried himself while in office. His continuing presence, they assume, might perhaps inspire the political leadership to overcome the social challenges represented by creeping crime, poverty, large-scale unemployment and corruption that have been stalking the country. He will be leaving behind a vacuum of hope to which his country’s citizens are clinging on so long he is alive. They will not have another matching anchor to which to moor their hopes of a better tomorrow if that ancient mariner were to leave the shore for good. This is what explains the idea of not “letting him go” despite the harsh reality at hand.

The world has had only few instances of self-effacing but truly effective political leadership such as that of Nelson Mandela. By the time he left the South African presidency after completing a single term of office, the moral authority surrounding him was far greater than what the exercise of temporal power had conferred upon him. He was truly not a run-of-the-mill political leader for whom the halo of glory apparently gets brighter the longer he stays in power even if that means fudging it up. Whenever Nelson Mandela travelled outside South Africa, even after relinquishing power, all attention turned upon him as iron filings get drawn when close to a powerful magnet.

Albert Einstein once surmised about another political leader who fought his fight equally vehemently only to fall under the assassin’s bullet, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, that with the passage of time, people would not believe that such a human being had once trodden upon earth. So rare is this kind of leadership that fifty or hundred years’ hence, people will wonder whether a leader of the calibre, composure and quiet assurance of Nelson Mandela trod upon the earth and that he was African.


* Published in print edition on 5 July  2013

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