The passing of Mandela

What qualities define a great leader? The ability to inspire others? Or the ability to get things done? The easy answer is “both.” But if I had to make a choice it would be someone who inspires others. The rest will follow. Churchill single-handedly changed the course of a world war through his words.

Ghandi was an inspiration to a sub-continent and has been invoked in every continent since. And then there is Nelson Mandela. The days following his death have seen unceasing coverage of his story. It is as though people cannot have enough of it. They want to soak in every detail of his “long road.” Among the multitude of reflections three stand out for me.

In his early years his embrace of the struggle probably did not differ much from that of many other fighters for freedom in Africa. But what is astonishing about Mandela was the focus he had over those long years on Robben Island and beyond. It is clear that every day, in his mental attitude and the physical regime he adopted for himself, he was preparing for the future –despite the fact that he was serving a life sentence! This practical belief in the unbelievable has to stand as one of his greatest qualities.

Then there was the time after his release when he could easily have waited for political office to be handed to him on a plate as part of some sort of inevitable process. But as the media has been reminding us over these days, there was nothing inevitable about those tense years 1990-94. I think I heard correctly that there were more deaths in those few years than in all the preceding years of the struggle. He took a firm and principled stand against would-be destroyers of the people’s hopes whether white or black. Violence on many sides, and especially the death of Chris Hani, eventually focused minds and led to the agreement to hold elections in 1994.

But even then he could not sit back and “enjoy the fruits.” Winning a landslide in an election does not necessarily bring reconciliation and peace and the media has made much, over the past few days, of his grasp of sport as the great reconciler. The film Invictus claims that he had to use all his authority to persuade people not only to accept the hated brand, Springbok, but to use it as a rallying cry to unite a nation.

People have used the word “miracle” over the past few days and rightly so. South Africa is a miracle. In the 1970s and ‘80s how many of us dreamt of such a relatively peaceful change? It still fills us with astonishment and gratitude. It would not be right to claim that it all came down to one man but there are few who would not agree that one lion-hearted man played a crucial role and his inspiration will live on for his country, his continent and the world.

Post published in: Faith

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *