Madiba: giant among men - Times LIVE
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Madiba: giant among men

Jonathan Jansen | 2011-07-17 23:47:58.0

When a recent book reviewer referred to Nelson Mandela as "little more than a charismatic pawn", he was making one of the classic errors of judgment about Madiba - that he was a soft, generous, manipulable old uncle whose only legacy to the nation was reconciliation with white folk.

The recent film Invictus and the related documentary, The 16th Man, reinforce this picture of Mandela as far as the reconciliation legacy is concerned. It is difficult in these public images of the great man - who loves singing Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star when he sees children - to imagine an armed soldier at the head of Umkhonto weSizwe, seeking out material targets for destruction.

Yet his greater legacy was his toughness as a combatant and his decisiveness as a leader.

So what is it about Nelson Mandela the leader that gave us a relatively peaceful transition when the enemies of democracy and freedom offered prophecies of racial conflagration and ethnic blood baths? And what is it about his powerful exemplar of leadership that involuntarily draws so much attention to the vacuum of leadership on the current political scene?

I write from a distance, for I did not have the privilege of working with Mandela the lawyer, the activist, the prisoner, the president or the first African retiree to step down voluntarily after one term in the highest office in the land.

The few times we shared moments together were far too brief and crowded to really know him. But there is perhaps an advantage to distance for it offers at once a broader view of the man and demands a more intensive study of the subject to really understand what it is that makes him such a global icon of decency and determination as a leader.

For many of us the first insights into the toughness of Mandela were those memorable words spoken from the dock "an idea for which I am prepared to die". There was a good chance the man would hang, for those were days in which the ANC was roundly condemned by both the local white and distant Western establishments as a tool of atheistic communism and its leader as a dangerous terrorist. To propose your own death by hanging - "if need be" - was a potentially catastrophic gamble that panicked his legal team. But when you listen to the recording of those words, the man is firm, focused and determined not so much to face the ultimate penalty, but in his convictions about what was right.

To my generation the strength of his leadership was when he rose from his table at Codesa and, with a drawn face, walked stiffly to the podium to dress down a sitting president, FW de Klerk, for the continuing township killings and widely suspected involvement of the apartheid army and police.

Mandela must have known that such a move could risk failure at the negotiating table and send South Africa spiralling backwards into the racial abyss from which it was struggling to claw its way out.

But, as in the case of any good leader, his emotional and political antennae had served him well - he knew when and how hard to push his adversaries in battle without losing the overall game. At that moment, I believe, De Klerk was effectively no longer president of the Republic of South Africa; the 1994 elections would only make the Mandela presidency a formality.

But the real evidence of his resolute leadership was during his long incarceration on a harsh island surrounded by the cold waters of the Atlantic within sight of the playful lights of beautiful Cape Town. Tough men broke. Some emerged from Robben Island with understandable bitterness. That experience altered the dispositions and personalities of many.

Mandela must have come close to breaking when he heard officially crafted rumours about his family or when he was so cruelly denied leave to attend his son's funeral or when he heard about the persistent massacres of his people on the streets. But the man would not budge in his determination to stay loyal to the struggle for freedom that nearly cost him his life. More than one apartheid p rime m inister or p resident, I am told, tried to seduce him into walking free provided he renounce violence. "Take me back to prison," was his response. By the time Mandela walked out of his final prison accommodation, the fist of the revolutionary in the air, the prisoners were the white government, the white wardens, and millions of white citizens who had jailed him for 27 years. He would, however, set them free as well.

The sacrifice of this great leader came at a terrible cost. He could not cry, his tear glands damaged by white limestone and by white racism. His emotions were carefully controlled - too carefully, some believe. He would separate shortly from his wife. But he had a country to lead, and only a few would witness his private pain.

Mandela was one of the few leaders in South Africa who understood the difference between authoritative and authoritarian leadership. He used his authority as a leader to call to order the ruffians within his own party. He imposed a difficult discipline on a movement struggling to come to terms with the post-exile and post-apartheid experience. He could calm the nation with the voice of authority after one of the country's most promising leaders, Chris Hani, was assassinated. And, yes, he could persuade his former tormentors that the absence of retaliation did not mean the abandonment of reparation.

The point about Mandela's leadership is this: it is possible to offer the soft hand of reconciliation only when you have a strong sense of who you are and where you want to go. Here is a paradox not yet explored - it was his toughness as a revolutionary activist that enabled his softness as a reconciling force.

For this, Mandela earned the respect of the world.

  • Jansen is rector of Free State University


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