ADMIRED EVERYWHERE: Nelson Mandela addresses the crowd during a statue unveiling ceremony in his honour at Parliament Square in London on August 29, 2007. Ikalafeng writes that Mandela set the standard for African leaders across the continent, mainly through embracing the diversity on the continent. Picture: Daniel Berehulak.

This week Nelson Mandela celebrates his 95th birthday. Thebe Ikalafeng reflects on this man's vision for Africa, and how he created an enabling environment for Thabo Mbeki to express our identity on the continent.

Throughout its history, South Africa has had a dichotomous relationship and identity with “Africa”. Apartheid South Africa was the pariah that united Africans against the last white rule – the final frontier in the decolonisation of Africa.

Post-apartheid, fellow Africans have flooded the most industrialised and wealthiest sub-Saharan African nation in search of a better life, and an expectation of “payback” for the years of support during the apartheid years.

But they have not always been met with an expected embrace, mainly because of the perception by the estimated 30 percent unemployed South Africans that their fellow Africans were “taking away jobs and opportunities”.

There is also a veiled envy of South Africa’s rapid accomplishments, advancement and progress which, as Sandile Memela wrote recently in The Sunday Independent, “explains its disconnection with its indigenous linkages” and a nation “recreated in the white European image”.

But there’s no denying the relevance of Africa’s prodigal nation and its most prominent 21st century son, Nelson Mandela, for Africa and the world today. In a recent New African interview, Mandela’s eldest daughter, Makaziwe Mandela, said his legacy was “Africa first”.

However, unlike his African predecessors, Kwame Nkrumah and Julius Nyerere, or even Thabo Mbeki, Mandela never quite pronounced his African agenda, partly because of his singular focus on the immensity of the South African post-apartheid socio-economic reconstruction agenda.


Instead, his African legacy is derived from his catalytic achievements and global recognition as a standout African in contrast to his peers and his belief in the possibility of “an Africa which is at peace with itself”.

The Mandela that was released from prison on February 11, 1990, confounded friend and foe who had expected a vengeful, principled, militant 43-year-old who captured the world’s imagination at the Rivonia Trial which started on November 26, 1963, and who was sentenced to life imprisonment with seven other senior leaders of the ANC, SACP, Congress Alliance and Umkhonto we Sizwe.

It was a new, conciliatory Mandela that said “as I walked out the door towards the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison”.

In spite of his opening commitment at the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (Codesa), established to chart a post-apartheid future, that “our people and the world expect a non-racial, non-sexist democracy to emerge from the negotiations on which we are about to embark”, it wasn’t until the miracle of April 27, 1994, that there was clarity and belief in the leadership of Mandela and an impact on Africa and the world.

After 27 years of incarceration, what would not have been a surprise to the world was a “typical African leader” who could not wait to take revenge and decimate the economy. A leader, as Idi Amin was described in an obituary published in The Sydney Morning Herald on August 18, 2003, “like many Africans, who admired a civilisation whose external trappings he strongly desired, but of whose internal workings he had no idea, while at the same time he was partly enclosed in the mental world of a primitive tribalist”.

What was expected was an “archetypal African dictator”, as Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu once described Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe.


Instead, there emerged a dignified global icon who recognised that to transform a nation, indeed the world, he needed to change himself first.

As he later reflected, “there is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered”.

While there is a recognition that Mandela alone did not achieve or effect the transformation of South Africa, as Professor Tom Lodge of the University of Limerick put it in Mandela: A Critical Life, he made “a deliberate effort to supply a form of quasi-messianic leadership”, not just for the ANC, but for Africa and the world.

Consequently, his transformation and leadership had a catalytic impact on the image of a nation, Africa and African people.

The 63rd UN General Assembly in November 2009 that resolved to recognise him by declaring his birthday, July 18, “Nelson Mandela International Day” did so not just for “his outstanding contribution to the creation of a non-racial, non-sexist, democratic South Africa”, but primarily for a leading role in and support for Africa’s struggle for liberation and Africa’s unity.

Mandela’s leadership has inspired Africa and the world, with a new brand of African leadership anchored on five principles.

The Codesa that started on December 20, 1991, to chart a post-apartheid South Africa played a significant role and set an African example for demonstrating the power of dialogue to resolve conflicts among foes.

An unexpected attack on the ANC and call to disarm Umkhonto we Sizwe by then President FW de Klerk was not met with retaliation, but a firm direction by then deputy president of the ANC, Mandela: “I am prepared to work with him (De Klerk) in spite of all his mistakes. And I am prepared to make allowances because he is a product of apartheid.”

The resultant agreements, and peaceful and democratic elections of 1994 and Government of National Unity, albeit often imperfect and temporary, have been a model adopted to enable co-operative governments around the continent.

Today, for a continent synonymous with frequent and expected coup d’etats and as many as 16 raging wars as recently as 2002, Africa is now fast achieving peace and stability with about two-thirds of governments in Africa democratically elected, compared with just eight in 1991.

As Mandela recognised, “Peace is not just the absence of conflict; peace is the creation of an environment where all can flourish, regardless of race, colour, creed, religion, gender, class, caste, or any other social markers of difference.”

With a history of self-declared life presidents and unlimited leadership terms, often through war or unfair, effective one-party elections and states, it was a refreshing African experience when Mandela stepped down on June 16, 1999, confident in his successor and that he had laid the foundation to carry forward the agenda for a better South Africa.

“It is no easy thing to rest while millions still bear the burden of poverty and insecurity.

“But my days will be filled with contentment to the extent that hands are joined across social divides and national boundaries, between continents and over oceans, to give effect to that common humanity in whose name we have together made the long walk to where we are today,” he said.

His example has inspired many leaders to retire with dignity rather than being forced to flee or die holding on to their “thrones” like Muammar Gaddafi recently, or in exile like Amin, or to be frog-marched to international human rights courts, as is the case with former Liberian strongman Charles Taylor and Ivory Coast’s Laurent Gbagbo.

His inspired leadership has made it possible for the formation of vehicles such as the Africa Forum, an informal network of more than 35 former African heads of state and other leaders, such as former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, who retired in dignity and are now using their experience, moral authority and good offices to assist the advancement of Africa’s social and economic development.

In 1998 Mandela became the first South African head of state to take the stand to justify an executive decision when the South African Rugby Football Union challenged his decision to appoint a judicial commission to probe allegations of racism and mismanagement in the sport.

In a continent accustomed to fluid constitutions and disregard for the rule of law, he set the new African leadership standard declaring that “we have to obey the constitution because it does not give immunity to a president or anybody else”.

Through these actions, Mandela has shown that leadership is not a position but action.

While it initially seemed impractical to have 11 official languages or not harmonious to have a national anthem with four languages, for Mandela it was always “impossible until it’s done”.

This is the same inspired leadership that has led South Africa to be the only country that recognises gay rights and allows same-sex marriage – and forced other African nations to face internal (not just global) resistance for non-inclusivity and for patriarchical Africa to recognise women as an integral part of the future of Africa, leading to the election of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia as the first female African leader in 2006 and Dr Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma as the first AU Commission chairwoman, in 2012.


Unencumbered by 50 years and trillions in aid that has crippled many African nations such as Malawi, who rely on donor income for more than 50 percent of their income, and consequently a donor- influenced agenda, he has leveraged South Africa’s wealth and global stature to drive a largely independent (from the West) agenda which embraces the best of the west without sacrificing African identity and context.

Increasingly, this has given many African nations the confidence to realise their potential and drive their own agenda. Now seven out of 10 of the fastest-rising economies projected by the Economist are African.

Everyone wants to be associated with Africa not just as a source of labour and raw material, but as an inspirational source of creativity and leadership across all sectors of productivity.

While Mandela did not eloquently articulate his vision for Africa in the manner of Mbeki’s “I am an African” speech, on the occasion of the adoption of the new constitution of South Africa, on May 8, 1996, he created an enabling environment for Mbeki to express South Africa’s identity with Africa.

A BBC Pulse of the People Survey in 2006 established that at least 85 percent of Africans are proud to be African and three out of five have confidence in their country.

Despite discontent at the pace of progress in South Africa (and Africa largely), or criticism such as by Zimbabwe’s Mugabe that “Mandela has gone a bit too far in doing good to the non-black communities at the expense of (blacks)”, it’s possible that the alternative would have created instability.

Though not seen or heard much, Mandela declared, “I shall be among you and with you as we enter the African century”.

Indeed, while his identity and location are intertwined, Mandela has shifted how the world views Africa and how Africans view themselves.

The AU’s 2063 vision of peace and prosperity is possible and Africa is better because of Nelson Mandela. -Independent on Sunday

Thebe Ikalafeng is a global African adviser and author on branding and reputation leadership and founder of Brand Africa. @ThebeIkalafeng.