FIRING LINE: Take a leaf from Mandela’s book
Nelson Mandela is the stuff legends are made of. I grew up hearing about Nelson Mandela and the apartheid struggle in South Africa. As far as South Africa seemed at that time, there was an affinity with the call for freedom for Blacks and the steadfast commitment of Mandela to see the regime overturned. My daughter has also grown up hearing about Nelson Mandela and the stories of his imprisonment and subsequent release and what that meant for the rebirth of a free South Africa.
What impressed me most about Mandela was that his leadership went against the grain of the tradition of iconic leaders. He was not the maximum leader, leading his party and his country with an iron fist intended to knock them into shape and quickly sweep the vestiges of racism out.
Rather, his quiet and unrelenting resolve that the “evil” regime must change for the good of both Blacks and Whites served to help heal sacred South Africa. I will forever remember the Rugby World Cup in 1995 and seeing the white crowd chanting. For me it was that moment perhaps that crystallized the significance of what his leadership meant for the entire country.
How he handled his divorce from Winnie and all the issues surrounding her thereafter, his choosing to step down from the leadership of the ANC when he knew it was time amazed me. Most leaders of his stature would have chosen to overstay their welcome; he left and chose to a live a life that was forever epitomized by quiet dignity.
The mark, though, of his enduring greatness would be the extent to which we learn from his life.
We must be careful not to create a martyr of him without internalizing the lessons he has to give to the world about how to resolve conflict and most importantly, how to be a great leader.
Hopefully, his death will provide for some quiet reflection across the globe and particularly for world leaders. While the world has changed much from the apartheid context, the underlying issues that plague societies across the world are much the same. President Obama’s struggle in the United States is the modern-day manifestation of this.
In Barbados, as our leaders and the country grapple with our own internal crisis, perhaps Mandela’s leadership can provide some telling lessons in order to provoke honest contemplation and assessment. I have no doubt that there is a cadre within our present leadership who go to sleep at night pondering long and hard over the country’s prospects and how their decisions will affect the lives of Barbadians.
I have no doubt that there are those among them who regret finding themselves in this political nightmare and wish they could pass this moment on. However, I believe that the current situation offers opportunity. It is in times of struggle when backs are against the wall that the intestinal fortitude of leaders can be demonstrated. It is in times like these that leaders can make defining moments by declaring, “If I die, I die, if I commit political suicide or not, I will make the best decision possible for all of my people.”
In these times the situation is the enemy and everyone else a possible ally. There is Bajan spirit that kicks in when times are tough and despite the political divide, I have faith that across the board, in boardrooms, in kitchens, in pulpits across this country people will be willing to band together to do what is necessary. But for that there must be a vision of leadership which is inclusive and understands the significance of the moment
and the intangible assets that lie in the Bajan spirit. Mandela did not have anything but his willpower and his vision of a changed South Africa and the willingness of the South African people to believe with him.
I am convinced that this crisis is a crisis of confidence and a crisis of indecision. But again, crises are moments which become history by how we handle them. Mandela laid bare the crisis of racism in South Africa. He called it evil – it was what it was. I am not sure that at the level of our leadership there has been an acknowledgement that there is a crisis. The time for platitudes, pride and political manoeuvring is over. It is time to come clean, call a spade a spade, and act.
Long live the spirit of Mandela!
• Shantal Munro-Knight is a development specialist and executive coordinator at the Caribbean Policy Development Centre.