Anointed a saint by many even in his lifetime, Nelson Mandela took great pains to assert he was as much a flawed human as the next man. But there’s no denying the legacy he left behind and the enduring image of a man embracing peace and his enemies.
The late South African president embodies many of the qualities of a true leader, qualities that are in short supply in the kind of populist-cum-fascist leaders making headlines these days, particularly the current occupant of the White House.
It’s been 10 years since the UN General Assembly declared July 18 as “Nelson Mandela International Day,” the date corresponding to his birthday in 1918. The day recognizes Mandela’s values and his dedication to the service of humanity in conflict resolution; race relations; promotion and protection of human rights; reconciliation; gender equality and the rights of children and other vulnerable groups; the fight against poverty; and the promotion of social justice.
The resolution recognized the Nobel Peace Prize laureate’s contribution to resolving conflicts and promoting race relations, human rights and reconciliation.
Mandela did indeed strive to peace and reconciliation in a post-apartheid South Africa. Despite being persecuted from birth for the colour of his skin and subsequently spending 27 years in prison, he remained statesman-like in his tenure as head of the African National Congress party and president in the decade following his release in 1990 right through to his death in 2013 at the age of 95.
That’s a legacy worth celebrating today. And that ideal is what comes to mind when we hear Mandela’s name mentioned. But he had no interest in being deified, noting his failed marriages, his less-than-stellar job as a father and his own history in the battle to end apartheid, the proximate cause of his imprisonment.
Therein lies a valuable lesson: a flawed human can still do the right thing as a leader. And a real leader must rise above his or her own flaws, shortcomings and prejudices to work on behalf of the people, the public good.
The democratic and representative ideals espoused by Mandela are today trampled on by ersatz leaders from the usual freedom-devoid and abusive dictatorial states – North Korea, China, Russia, much of the Middle East and Africa – to the downward-sliding examples of Turkey, Hungary, Poland and, most notably, the United States. We’re seeing attacks on democracy, human rights and basic civility in a host of ostensibly or previously democratic countries.
With the rise of authoritarian/fascist movements – often a reaction to economic failures and demographic changes – the very nature of democracy is at risk, in large part due to our own ignorance and lack of vigilance.
Even as things backslide, people in such democratic countries still vote – turnout isn’t always what it should be – but it’s increasingly just a veneer of democracy and choice.
The ultimate goal of leaders of divided Western countries is to subvert the system. It’s the appearance of democracy without the actual bother of fair elections and accountability.
The risks are real and efforts to bypass democracy are at work, even here. Our disconnection from the process makes it easier. We don’t trust politicians and bureaucrats. We don’t trust them with our money. We don’t trust them to be ethical. We don’t trust them to do what’s right for us.
South Africa seemed full of promise 25 years ago when Mandela was elected president, but the country is in dire straits today, largely due to corruption and failed leadership, the kind that is often associated with the continent. On Nelson Mandela Day, his country of birth and pretty much everywhere else could benefit from the ideal of leadership he advocated.