The Mandela Legacy: an inspiration or a millstone?

Mandela_picture_Asante and Balogun_Oct1992Twenty years after winning the Nobel Peace Prize, Nelson Rolihlalala Mandela, finally joined his ancestors. Madiba, as he was fondly known, died last Thursday, the 5th day of December 2013. As to be expected when a colossus passes on, the earth trembled, the sky wept, and humans, wherever they were, showered encomiums on an all-time hero. Tributes to Madiba’s memory poured from all parts of the globe. Over ninety heads of state and government (a record number) left their domains and showed up in South Africa to pay their last respects to this remarkable leader. Madiba truly deserved the honor. He worked tenaciously for the enthronement of justice and equality, and when he finally vanquished his opponents, he did not allow his victory to go into his head or the bitterness of the past injustice to linger in his mind.

Mandela would be genuinely embarrassed if hailed as a saint, but saintly qualities he did have. No single word fully and accurately captures his superlative qualities. As part of the citation for the award of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993, the Chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, Francis Sejersted, had described Mandela as “… a shining example for the world that there are ways out of the vicious circle of violence and bitterness”. Yet, fitting as that description is, it does not fully capture Mandela’s true nature. He was gifted with many endearing attributes, among them, charisma, strength of character, perseverance, courage under fire, tenacity, sense of mission, magnanimity in victory, forbearance, open-mindedness, humility, and readiness to acknowledge his imperfections as a human being, the list is endless.

An embodiment of diverse but admirable attributes, the icon of the anti-apartheid struggle will go down in history as an individual passionately loved by his people, highly respected by his adversaries, and never taken for granted by anyone. Even those who once hated his guts later saw what had all along inspired his legion of admirers and sustained the anti-apartheid struggle—notably, Mandela’s genuine commitment to the loftiest human ideals, including the ideals of justice, equality, dignity, compassion, peace and reconciliation.

At a time when score-settling was in vogue across the African continent, Mandela came up with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to wipe the apartheid slate clean and give South Africa a fresh start. When other leaders were perfecting strategies to eliminate the opposition and entrench their own life-presidencies, Madiba saw power at best, as a means of accomplishing a greater good and at worst an evanescent energy source that the weak-minded foolishly squanders pursuing short-term, personal aggrandizement goals. He decided that the power which helped him topple apartheid should be quickly turned over to a new generation of leaders and applied to tackle post-apartheid challenges. South Africa’s long-term interest might (or might not) have been served if he had stayed on longer as President. However, that he chose to quit after a term in office speaks volumes about his inner character—particularly, his inclination to view power as a means to an end rather than as an end in itself.

I had the honor of meeting the great man at close quarters eight months after his February 1992 release from 27-year detention (see uploaded pic). As members of the first exploratory mission fielded by the UN Economic Commission for Africa to South Africa in October 1992, Professor SKB Asante and I paid a courtesy call on the ANC leader at his temporary office in Shell House, Johannesburg. What surprised the two of us was Mandela’s relaxed attitude to protocol. When Ben Turok, then Director of the Institute for African Alternatives and later Member of Parliament, assured us that Mandela would grant us audience, we thought he was kidding. Yet, kidding Turok was not. Our go-between had no problem squeezing us into Mandela’s crowded schedule and enabling us to hold meaningful discussions with the future President of post-apartheid South Africa.

That was not all. We had expected to be kept waiting at the visitors’ lounge for hours. We spent less than ten minutes in an ante-room before being ushered into the great man’s presence. We found our host affable without being condescending, humorous in a spontaneous, unrehearsed way, and current for someone who had been in detention for twenty seven years.

Asante and I knew—as every other person knew—that in a straight-forward race, the ANC would sweep the polls and Mandela, its leader, would be sworn in as the President. What we had no way of knowing was the kind of President he would turn out to be. We could only hope that he would be one who would lead his followers with compassion, redress past inequities while at the same time healing ethnic and racial wounds. We did not realize that God Almighty was listening to our inner thoughts and granting our wishes. Post-apartheid South Africa needed a second chance. God placed Mandela at that critical juncture in history–in a position allowing him to make weighty choices and give his country the badly craved second chance.

He was of course a mere mortal. He planned to do a lot, but was able to accomplish relatively little. Tried as he might, he was unable to conquer all challenges or solve everyone’s problems. Unable to delink the South African economy from the international monopoly capital, or to resist the imposition of neoliberal fiscal and macro-economic policies by the Breton-Woods institutions, Mandela failed in his promise to relieve the suffering of the multitude living in poor, largely black, communities. As the first Finance Minister, Trevor Manuel, forged ahead with a growth-oriented, IMF/World Bank agenda, the ANC had to sacrifice one of its cardinal objectives, that is, providing the black population greater access to decent housing, jobs, health and education services. South Africa might have got rid of the apartheid regime’s excesses, but inequality remains entrenched. Criminality and violence naturally thrive under such a social-Darwinist arrangement.

The African National Congress had started with the goal of liberating South Africa from apartheid rule and redressing historical disadvantages. When the liberation movement captured power in 1994 and Nelson Mandela became President, the government produced a blueprint aptly titled “Ready to Govern” (The African National Congress, 1992). However, rather than focus solely on the needs and aspirations of the black majority, the new vision rightly acknowledged the multi-racial character of South Africa. The blueprint went overboard to address the white population’s and other minority groups’ fears. Page 2 of the policy document graphically sums of the dilemma facing Mandela and his lieutenants in the ANC:

Our people remain divided. We do not know each other. We are prevented from developing a national vision, in terms of which, we would see our country through the eyes of all citizens, and not just one group or the other. We live apart, physically separated, spiritually alienated, frightened of getting too close, knowing that we have different life-chances and different views of what change means” .

Mandela’s inability to rectify past historical imbalances notwithstanding, he still stands heads and shoulders above many of his predecessors and practically all his contemporaries. His readiness to acknowledge his own limitations and to turn power over to successors makes him an all-time role model. Sit-tight leaders will do well to learn from his example.

It is comforting to note that Africa was (and is) not totally lacking in leaders with admirable attributes. Long before Mandela opted for a fixed, one-term, presidency, Leopold Sedar Senghor had voluntarily stepped down as Senegalese President. In much the same way that Mandela resisted the temptations to compromise on his struggle for a just and multi-racial society, Julius Nyerere had stayed faithful to Ujama’a to the very end. Acknowledging his own mortality, the late Tanzanian leader had groomed successors who would (and did) carry on from where he stopped. Like Senghor, Nyerere left office voluntarily. And like Nyerere, Sam Nujoma, SWAPO leader, resisted the urge to sit sight in the president’s office, preferring to let others carry on from where he left off as President of independent Namibia.

Africa is equally blessed with visionary leaders—depending on what passes for a vision at any time or place. Before self-seeking and “self-succession” instincts took over the reins of power, it was the vision of independence that fired the anti-colonial struggle in the majority of African countries. Whether it was Ghana, Guinea, Mali, or Nigeria, Benin, Togo, Kenya, Botswana, and Lesotho, or even Congo, Angola and Mozambique, visionary leadership it was that fought colonialism and “brought independence”.

Nigeria, for instance, might not be under a racially segregated, apartheid, society that needed to be liberated by a mass movement like the ANC (or SWAPO). However, like South Africa, Nigeria carried the baggage of colonialism. Getting rid of that baggage required a generation of leaders who were no less focused and no less determined than Mandela. Nigeria’s nationalist leaders could not have come from a more diverse background. Yet, they shared a vision of an independent, united and prosperous Nigeria. Nnamdi Azikiwe, the leader of the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (later National Council of Nigerian Citizens) took a pan-African view of the anti-colonial struggle. Obafemi Awolowo, the leader of the Action Group, converted an ethnic association, the Egbe Omo Oduduwa, into a formidable force in the fight against the British colonial rule. Ahmadu Bello, the leader of the Northern People’s Congress, spent the greater part of his life championing the cause of a multi-ethnic, and multi-religious Northern Region, and adapting traditional institutions to the needs of a modern society. Unlike their successors, none of Nigeria’s nationalist leaders saw public office as an avenue to riches and primitive accumulation.

After all said and done, the fact remains that the likes of Mandela are rare to find in contemporary Africa. Where Mandela literally fought for the liberation of his country, the majority of African countries attained independence on a platter of gold. Real drama began after the attainment of independence. As one-party rule and military dictatorship swept democratic institutions aside, the mantle of leadership fell on “strongmen”—that is, men and an increasing number of women that combine shrewd manipulation of government patronage with systematic application of cunning and terror (Balogun, M J., 2013, The Route to Power in Nigeria, Malthouse Press, Lagos).

All is not lost, however. After a series of false-starts, a number of African countries are beginning to create institutions enabling individuals with visionary leadership qualities to emerge. Whether it is Ghana, Benin, Kenya, or Zambia, the signs on the horizon point to the ascendancy of a new generation of leaders committed to the welfare, dignity, and total liberation of their peoples.

A sad exception is Nigeria. For reasons that are yet to be ascertained, Nigeria has produced a disproportionately high number of “strong men” in place of visionary leaders. The late Alhaji Lamidi Adedibu is a typical “strong man”. He consolidated his grip on Oyo State politics by terrorizing his opponents while ensuring that he and his supporters remained sufficiently connected with power at the center to enjoy immunity from prosecution. Adedibu’s power in Oyo State was such that a past national Chairman of the ruling People’s Democratic Party, Dr Ahmadu Ali, conferred on Adedibu the title of “garrison commander”. Like his counterpart strongmen elsewhere, Adedibu did not pretend to share anyone’s vision of development or democracy. His job was done once he outwitted his opponents, captured power, and handed it over to the highest bidder or to whoever agreed to his terms.

At a time when Nigerian leaders should, like Mandela, be anxious about their appointment with history, they act as if reading from Adedibu’s guidebook. Instead of envisioning a society where citizens live happy and fulfilling lives—and where corruption is tamed, violent crime is contained, and youth unemployment is tackled–incumbents think of nothing except how to remain in office and possibly line their pockets. Their opponents have no plan beyond capturing power and gaining access to the goodies they had long been denied. Neither the incumbents nor the aspirants epitomize the Mandela spirit or actions. None of the leaders plans anytime soon to narrow the widening inequality, stop the routine but systematic assets stripping (carried out under the cover of “privatization”), and stem the slide into a violent, social-Darwinist state.

To perpetuate the Mandela legacy, an incumbent or aspiring leader has to place the interest of the country above his. The boxing legend, Mohammed Ali, was once quoted as saying that service to humanity is the price one pays for occupying a space on earth. This is right on target. We may of course add by saying that service to the People is the whole essence of leadership—the very reason a person steps forward to lead other persons.

Leadership is always earned, never unilaterally imposed by an individual or hijacked by a king-making cabal. This is where charisma helps. Charisma is the degree to which a leader’s vision, behavior, comportment, utterances, and public persona are perceived with admiration by the followers. By admiration, we do not mean hero worship, but emotional identification with the leader’s past feats, current accomplishments, and above all, future aspirations. In any event, what the leader stands for is not as important as the perceptions of his/her opponents, associates, and followers.

Mandela’s place in history is assured, not by his commanding and impressive physical presence, or any claim to wealth, but by the values (of justice and human dignity) that he championed. Tanzania’s Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, northern Nigeria’s Ahmadu Bello, the Sardauna of Sokoto, and Leopold Sedar Senghor of Senegal are among leaders that died materially poor but who bequeathed lasting legacies.

In a nutshell, Mandela will be an inspiration to those with believable visions of a better society, and the tenacity of purpose that is needed to get the people to the promised land. In Nigeria’s case, the likely candidates for Mandela-like leadership positions will be those who realize that the masses are hurting, and come up with radical but realistic solutions to the ordinary citizen’s problems. These visionary leaders will articulate ideas as to how to tame systemic corruption, combat widespread indiscipline, restore faith in public institutions, ensure prompt and cost-effective delivery of welfare and infrastructure support services, create jobs, and respond to the clamor for popular participation in the governorship of the country. These outputs are the minimum required of any leader that draws any inspiration from Mandela’s life. By contrast, strong-wo/men and transactional leaders would see Mandela’s life struggles as another story–a gripping narrative to be read at bedtime to calm one’s nerves, but not a useful guidebook for current and aspiring leaders. To the strong-wo/men and transactional leaders, Mandela’s legacy is a millstone which they will sooner cast off than leave fastened round their necks.

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