One of the greatest statesmen who ever lived, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, passed away last week at the grand age of 95 years, many of them extremely meaningful ones. This “Father of the South African nation” was a guiding light that illuminated the path ahead and became a beacon of hope for all South Africans to assist in leading us out of the brutal and oppressive apartheid rule to freedom and a true democracy. Although all South Africans (and others around the world) mourn his passing, we nonetheless celebrate a legacy of legendary leadership – a leadership that has impacted so many so positively.
Nelson Mandela never wavered in his devotion to democracy, equality and learning. Despite terrible provocation, he never answered racism with racism. His life has been an inspiration to all who are oppressed and deprived, to all who are opposed to oppression and deprivation. Standing up for what is right and noble, he even had moments where he found it necessary to criticise and rebuke his own political party when its members stepped out of line and opted for practices that went against the principles embedded in the South African Constitution and party charter. He will be known and forever remembered for his integrity and fairness, his allegiance to principles of human dignity and rights.
I believe we can learn the following from this legendary leader:
- A core belief in and understanding of the dignity of the human being – his respect for the least from the world’s perspective is well documented. He always made time to talk to the gardener, consult with the butler and pause to connect to the crowds.
- A compassion that over-shadowed any possibility of personal bitterness – his ability to forgive and to embrace “the enemy” points to a heart that understands the frailty of the human being.
- A passion to promote and be inclusive of diversity – he realised that differences (of opinion, culture, gender, upbringing, world view) gave one a real opportunity of reaching synergy (solutions that gave one exponential results). He purposefully met with people of other persuasions and beliefs.
- A decisive leadership, but coupled with responsibility taken for decisions made – he led from the front, modelled the principles of the South African Constitution and always made himself accountable to Parliament and the Nation.
- A focused vision of a better future – his ability to see the potential “big picture” and to focus his energy on that same vision, without distraction. This was particularly exemplified in the inauguration of the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund – he showed the nation that we were building for the future of South Africa’s youth.
- A good sense of humour – he often, whilst remaining above the typical political spats and issues, used humour to diffuse what could have been very uncomfortable situations.
- An offering of trust and dignity to everyone – a businessman was invited to breakfast with Madiba and, running a little late, urged his driver to speedily get to the Mandela residence. Breathless, he ran up the stairs to greet the waiting host, who promptly asked him: “Were there not two of you?” The businessman explained that he was alone, upon which Mandela asked him to wait and proceeded to invite the driver to join them for breakfast. The businessman felt terrible – when back in the car after breakfast, the driver turned to the businessman and thanked him profusely for asking Mandela to come out and invite him to breakfast too. The businessman felt even worse, but had learnt something for life!
- A relationship of understanding with “the enemy” – he always sought to understand, even if he did not agree with the philosophy of those that hated or just tolerated him. Time and again, he met with leaders on the far right of the political spectrum. At the inaugural presidential dinner, he had his Robben Island prison wardens sit on his left and his right.
- A sense of occasion – he used significant events to communicate significant messages, e.g., inspiringly wearing the No 6 Springbok captain’s rugby jersey at the World Cup Final in Johannesburg to present the trophy (leadership has changed hands now), the colourful “Madiba shirts” he wore, branding the rainbow nation (all are included) and appearing in his frailty at the Soccer World Cup Final (communicating hope and unity for the future).
- A selflessness in leadership, his primary focus on uplifting the poor, oppressed and uneducated – he stayed for one term in his presidency (his job of bringing South Africa to democracy now complete). Power, greed and position were “evils” he struggled against and never wanted any of the “privileges” of leadership for himself.
Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela died peacefully last week – we all mourn his passing, but more significantly, we celebrate the gift of his legendary leadership, his integrity and his impact. Rest in peace, my leader, and thank you for your example. May we continue in your footsteps.