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The first thing that strikes one as one reads the pages of Nelson Mandela’s speeches, letters and transcripts, collected in No Easy Walk to Freedom, is that he and his generation of ANC and ANC Youth League leaders were political giants compared with the current cohort.
During the dark times of apartheid, the Mandela generation were far more visionary, more intellectually astute, open to new ideas and far wiser.
Someone who occupies a position of authority and holds and exercises power is not always necessarily a leader. Leadership is about the quality of an individual’s actions, behaviour and vision.
During the dark times of apartheid, the Mandela generation offered a kind of leadership that was apparent in the quality of their actions.
The success of the ANC as a liberation movement during colonialism and apartheid rested on vision- ary leadership, on striving to be racially, ethnically and class inclusive, being accountable to its members, practising inclusive democracy and the exemplary personal behaviour of its leaders. Mandela’s own leadership during the dark times personified these values.
The failure of most African liberation-movements-turned-governments is the moral corruption of the leaders and parties who hold power, even if they have a just cause, impeccable “struggle” credentials that give them the moral high ground and the right policies in government.
Suddenly finding themselves with state power and all its trap- pings – from a position of extreme poverty, powerlessness and marginalisation to access to fabulous wealth, unlimited power, often over life, death and the fortunes of others – has corrupted many liberation-movements-turned-governments in Africa and Eastern Europe.
Often leaders and parties have seen themselves, because of their new-found power, not only as above the law, but above the strictures of good, responsible personal and moral behaviour.
Mandela, when he was president of South Africa, was that rare leader who did not allow new-found state power to corrupt his personal and political morals and behaviour.
Amilcar Cabral, one of the great thinkers of African liberation ideology, said the success of African liberation movements that become governments depends more than anything else on the personal moral behaviour, decency and honesty of their leaders and members.
What kind of morality are we talking about? In the context of political parties, governments and leaders, we are talking about democratic morality, which transcends narrow religious and cultural traditions and ethnicities. Implicit in democratic morality is personal behaviour that is both ethical and honest, a sense of duty, and governance according to the values of the constitution and in the interests of the widest number of people rather than for personal enrichment or the interests of a small elite.
In practice, democratic morality means that where traditional and cultural practices undermine democratic values, individual dignity and rights, such practices should be set aside.
The ANC’s success was to turn the struggle against apartheid into a moral struggle: in fact, to turn it into a global moral struggle. This strategy could not have succeeded without leaders with huge moral authority who, by their individual ethical and moral conduct, reinforced the moral dimensions of the struggle.
The current reality is, embarrassingly, quite the opposite. This is illustrated in the wide difference between the moral authority of Mandela, Oliver Tambo or Walter Sisulu – all members of the Mandela generation – and the murkiness of Jacob Zuma, the ANC president, and the populism of Julius Malema, the expelled youth league president.
The fact that the morally flawed Zuma could be elected to the presidency by the ANC is testimony to the moral regression of the party.
The hardships suffered by victims of colonialism, apartheid and other terror regimes meant that being moral was almost a luxury.
Apartheid, slavery and colonialism aimed to break black people as individuals.
Psychologist Bruno Bettelheim described how terror regimes break the individual’s ability “to regulate his (or her) own life”. To prevent such regimes from succeeding in breaking the inner spirit of the individual, the answer is “to maintain one’s dignity”. One of the ways to do this is to choose one’s “own attitude” in “any given circumstance”, even in “extreme conditions” which seem “totally beyond one’s ability to influence them”.
Dignity in this context is the “capacity to satisfy, through one’s actions, criteria that one has internalised”. Mandela, as evidenced by the letters and speeches in No Easy Walk, undoubtedly retained his dignity during the dark times.
Colonialism and apartheid left behind broken individuals with a damaged sense of self, leading to fractures in the social fabric that continue to influence South Africa.
In fact, apartheid and colonialism left black South Africans with massive “existential insecurity”, meaning, in the words of American political scientists Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart, “a persistent, generalised sense of threat and unease” because their survival was systematically threatened on every level: personal, familial, communal, cultural and national.
In many African post-independence societies, the leaders of independence movements have spectacularly failed to provide leadership in the context of broken societies and broken individuals, most of them lacking the imagination to do so.
South African businessman Reuel Khoza rightly argues that before African leaders can offer such leadership, “they must have emotional intelligence, self-knowledge and the ability to self-reflect. They must, like Nelson Mandela, the former South African president, be attuned to their own ‘feelings of rage and impotence’, and yet be able to overcome this.”
Martha Cabrera, the Nicaraguan social psychologist, said of the revolution in her country: “What we need is leadership that starts with the personal, leaders who lead from their own values, their own life.”
For Mandela, as No Easy Walk to Freedom shows, the moral integrity of a leader is crucial.
In the ANC of the 1940s, ’50s and early ’60s – in which Mandela cut his political teeth – the democratic spirit was premium. The youth league statement of policy, which was developed in the mid-1940s, called for “true democracy” in South Africa and Africa.
Even as a youth league leader, Mandela was more democratic in outlook than many of the current ANC leaders, a number of whom seemingly appear to believe in a very narrow version of democracy.
During the 1960s, Mandela had strong views on the kind of democracy he envisaged. He argued for a parliamentary system, a bill of rights, the separation of powers, as well as the independence and impartiality of the judiciary that “never fails to arouse my admiration”.
This is truly revolutionary, as many African independence and liberation movements and their leaders have viewed democracy in its narrowest sense, sometimes wrongly insisting that democracy only meant holding elections.
In Mandela’s ANC, decisions were made through consultation, negotiation and discussion, and recognised the equity of all.
But as the party celebrated its 100th anniversary, anti-democratic leaders, groups and factions appeared to have a stranglehold and democrats seemed to be in retreat.
Key ANC leaders participated in the writing of the constitution, which sets a clear democratic, rights and values framework for post-apartheid South Africa and was widely considered among the most progressive in the world.
Incredibly, some leaders are now saying that the country’s constitution, particularly its provision for freedom of expression, “undermines” development.
The strength of the ANC during the Mandela era was its ability to portray itself as a more racially inclusive alternative to the racially segregated colonial and apartheid ruling parties of South Africa. As shown in this collection, Mandela did not respond to narrow Afrikaner nationalism with narrow African nationalism. His African nationalism was far more embracing and inclusive and non-racial in outlook than the narrow Africanism being espoused by many leaders in the ANC and ANC Youth League today.
Mandela’s 1962 statement in the dock during his political trial for inciting resistance against the apartheid government neatly stated that South Africanness cannot be defined in relation to an ethnic majority. In his autobiography, partly written clandestinely in his Robben Island prison cell, Mandela appealed to the best of African traditions, culture and custom to argue that “a minority was not to be crushed by a majority”.
Mandela, a fierce opponent of apartheid, was also a fierce opponent of the abuses, corruption and autocratic behaviour exhibited by fellow black leaders.
For him, black solidarity stopped when his fellow black leaders behaved undemocratically or were corrupt or uncaring.
From Mandela’s speeches it is clear that, for him, (Canadian former politician) Michael Ignatieff’s concept of civic nationalism was applicable to his vision of a future South Africa.
In civic nationalism, the glue that holds different communities together is equal rights and shared democratic cultures, values and institutions, rather than ethnic nationalism, which uses ethnicity as the main principle of belonging.
In South Africa’s case, Mandela saw such a civic nationalism as a more appropriate tool to overcome divisions based on race, gender, class and access to resources.
* This is an edited extract from Gumede’s Introduction to a new edition of Nelson Mandela’s No Easy Walk to Freedom, published by Kwela.