WHILE I admired former President Nelson Mandela for offering to only stay in power for one term, then resign, and for honouring that pledge – a first in Africa, perhaps even in the world – I’m still of the view that his departure from office was premature.
There are reasons for which it was a good move, no doubt, and there are reasons for which it can be deemed as having been premature. I know that many will disagree with me for saying this, especially the seemingly growing ‘Mandela-betrayed-the-revolution-by-giving-too-much-away’ brigade.
In promising to leave after only one term in office and honouring the pledge without needing to be reminded or pushed out, Mandela set a good precedence in Africa – a continent that has been ruled, not governed, by a gang of gerontocrats for over 50 years since the early years following independence.
Their decades long stay in power has enabled these ageing African rulers to entrench themselves and their personal, often tribal, interests to the extent that in the absence of independent institutions of democracy in their countries they became the institutions.
Some of them might have chuckled secretly when they watched Mandela make the promises he made. He was an African leader like no other, a rare breed.
Now, I argue that Mandela left too prematurely because he, more than most, understood the need to hold South Africans together; despite our often conflict-filled habits.
Those who worked closely with him will tell you that he was human enough to get upset, when the situation warranted it, and that he never hesitated to show it when he got to that point. He could admonish a person one minute and embrace them the next. But he also mastered the art of ensuring that he remained as balanced as he reasonably could in his treatment of South Africans from various backgrounds.
In case someone from the brigade mentioned above starts getting excited, being balanced never meant that Mandela became blind to the material imbalances created and cemented by apartheid legislation and policies over time.
After all, it was because of his acute understanding of and sensitivity to these imbalances that he dedicated his entire life to the fight for a just South Africa, a just Africa, and a just world.
Many will recall how upset he was when the Boipatong massacre took place in June 1992 and when Chris Hani was assassinated in April 1993. On several occasions he sternly admonished FW de Klerk and the National Party for undermining their partners during the multiparty negotiations.
In fact, Mandela was given many reasons to indefinitely walk away from the negotiations during the years leading to the historic all-inclusive elections in April 1994 – but he knew that a lot more would be at stake if the negotiations failed.
It can also be argued that he was also not impressed with the IFP’s Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi playing hard-to-get when everyone seemed to have bought into the need to forge ahead as one; despite the many differences and often conflicting agendas.
Again, Mandela went out of his way to ensure that Buthelezi was offered enough sweeteners to agree being included on the historic ballot paper even after it had been printed and ready to be sent to the voting stations across the country.
Mandela led with maturity
Mandela had an acute understanding and appreciation of his own impact on the people around him. He was aware of his power and he possessed the maturity, balance, emotional intelligence and empathy to know how to use it to build unity; not to destroy it.
He also famously admonished his own followers when, in their overzealous hunger for immediate change, they demanded to have the springbok emblem thrown away and replaced with something else. In stopping them from doing so, he was stern, yet managed to show them that he too came from whence they came – but went on to convince them that their suggested approach would only help to grow historic fissures, not heal them.
Many would like to deny it, I know, but when Mandela left we, South Africans, were left orphaned.
We were still divided in many ways. Yet, thanks to his stewardship, we are working on being more united in our new-born desire to build a shared future – united in our diversity. For all the obvious reasons it was never going to be an easy journey, but we had no choice but to make it work. The alternative would have been almost certain hell.
With him gone, we have seen leaders who never quite mastered the art of balance. Balance in unambiguously addressing our legacy issues while keeping us united as a South African nation. Balance in admonishing divisive forces on all sides of the political spectrum without appearing to sympathise with any of them for political expediency.
Being balanced and acting with empathy shouldn’t mean that a transformative leader should neglect the historic obligation to flatten the imbalances we inherited from our past. It means being able to do so without making any group of South Africans live with fear that their own motherland no longer wants them and their children.
In all communities, there are individuals and groups that are good and needed for the shared South Africa we signed up to build together, at the dawn of our democracy – and there are others whose conduct and utterances are dangerous, at best and at worst, risk leading our country into unnecessary civil war if not checked.
Given the increased levels of racist rhetoric being hurled in all directions, South Africa needs a leader who is able to soar above his or her own little world and speak to all South Africans a lot more often as the leader of all. Not one who only leads a fraction of the population who wear his or her colours or speak like him or her.
No brand grows organically in a sustainable way – and country/nation brands are no exceptions. They need values-driven leaders who are armed with a uniting vision. In our troubled, murky, racial storms, leadership is required.
Who will stand up?