I FIND myself wondering increasingly often, probably like many other South Africans, how the late president Nelson Mandela would have responded to a number of issues we’re faced with in contemporary South Africa. I try to hold on with dear life to the memory of a time – a very brief time – when South Africa did not seem and feel rudderless, when we were led by a man of substance and, arguably, a good team of men and women around him. I do this not just for the romance of it all, but to prevent myself from falling into the trap of believing that there is no hope of that ever happening again, and that what we have today is here to stay.
I refuse to lower the bar of leadership for South Africa, because I firmly believe that this country can stand proud and lead again.
Mandela was known to make his stance known on critical issues when firm leadership was needed. In that, he was gentle yet firm and fearless. Like a parent who has been standing back to see where a squabble between children would end – but never longer than necessary – Mandela would always step in at the right time and tell them “alright, alright, this far and no further; this is how we’re going to proceed in this matter”.
He famously did this when some people were busy arguing whether the Springbok team should continue displaying its famous emblem on its gear. He went further to publicly show support to the national rugby team when they played against the All Blacks in the 1995 Rugby World Cup, even walking onto the pitch wearing the green and gold jersey to share their moment of glory after the match.
It can be argued that that Rugby World Cup Win and the momentous Mandela touch constituted the most unifying event in the aftermath of the historic 1994 elections. I was sitting in my home in Toronto, Canada, when I watched that match, but I felt totally connected to the festive mood in South Africa.
I have no doubt that many South Africans have their own recollection of a Mandela leadership story, when the old man stood up to bring order and direction in a beerhall-like noisy room. He was always fair, and good at explaining the reasons for choosing a certain direction.
His leadership and stance on specific issues were also known abroad. He famously told the Americans that they would not choose friends for him when he insisted on seeing people like Yasser Arafat, Muammar Gaddafi, Fidel Castro and others who had stood behind the global anti-apartheid effort. He also told the Chinese where to get off when they tried to prevent him from hosting the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, in South Africa.
Not a single South African president has since dared look the ever-paranoid Chinese in the eyes again on the Dalai Lama matter. The spiritual leader has gone from being allowed to visit again when Thabo Mbeki was president – but not to meet with the president who was reported to have been too busy to see him – to being refused a visa not once, but twice, first by then acting president Kgalema Motlanthe and then by President Jacob Zuma.
Whether some people agreed with Mandela’s position on these and many other issues is beside the point; he was a leader who knew how to lead from the front. And he did this neither for his personal aggrandisement nor to spite others; he did it in the interest of the country he led, for all South Africans and, we now know, for humanity.
It is no wonder that he continues to attract many people even after his passing. Neeran, my friend at the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, never stops telling me about the number of foreign dignitaries who continue to make a pilgrimage to the institution, still wanting to feel Mandela’s presence.
SA became orphaned after Madiba left us
But we all know, Mandela is gone and, sadly, so is his leadership. With his passing, our nation became orphaned, a yoke that seems to weigh us down at every step. The democratic institutions created under his leadership still stand – well, barely in some cases. The handful that remain on their feet are forever under threat of capture and weakening for nefarious political ends. But we have to keep fighting to protect them because they are the buffer that stands between us and sure hell; a hell which is increasingly visible to the eye.
Had Mandela still been around, the madness we see unfolding at the SABC would have been stamped out, and competent, values-driven leadership would have been put in place long ago to steer South African Airways away from an almost certain crash. Our foreign policy would still be underpinned by the spirit of defending human rights and dignity wherever they get threatened, especially in Africa.
And our diplomats would be driven by the values enshrined in our constitution. Here at home, our institutions would not be left in the hands of mad people who are said to be doing what they’re doing because they’re constantly second-guessing a political boss who doesn’t seem to get it. Or perhaps he does, but his priorities no longer coincide with the interests of the country and nation.
Collectively, South Africans still carry a historic wound that is now being allowed to fester in the sun. We see the fissures expanding when angered people easily retreat behind their historic lines, from which they hurl hurtful racial insults at others. Things will not get better until we find a leader again who will understand our wounds and fears and point us all to the big picture; to our shared aspirations.
Given our diversity, we need a leader who will master the art of sitting in the political middle and stretch out his (or her) arms to embrace those on either side of him when the need arises; all in the spirit of our constitution and the socio-political contract that are now being shredded to pieces in front of us.
We should not give up.