A statement by Africa Faith and Justice Network Executive Director, Aniedi Okure, OP
Africa’s greatest political icon, former South African President Madiba Nelson Mandela has joined the ranks of Africa’s ancestors. Madiba Mandela was by all accounts one who believed in the goodness of people and had a strong faith in the goodness of human nature. He preached and practiced forgiveness. He was keenly aware of the role society plays in creating and fostering stereotypes and in enforcing class divisions and conflict. In his Long walk to Freedom Madiba Mandela noted that “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion.” These attitudes are learned and, for Mandela, if people “can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
An exemplary symbol of forgiveness and reconciliation, Madiba Mandela put the common good over his personal pursuits. Love and forgiveness came naturally to him. After being imprisoned for 27 years on trumped up charges of inciting a strike, sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow the white government, and subjected to hard labor in a lime quarry in the notorious Robben Island prison, Madiba was gracious to those who inflicted such cruelty on him. He forgave and embraced them.
A leader of the people, Madiba Mandela realized that leadership is for service and that leaders need to groom and give way to others to serve. Although Madiba Mandela’s name is synonymous with the struggle against apartheid, he did not paint himself as the “savior” of South Africans when apartheid rule was legally ended.
A champion on democracy and citizens’ participation in governance, Madiba Mandela understood that power resides in the people. He respected the rule of law and term limit for leaders, modeling it by his example and relinquishing the office of the president with grace and dignity. For him a leader “stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind.” Madiba Nelson Mandela was indeed a distinguished elder statesman who occupies a prominent place among African ancestors.
A Lesson for African Leaders
Do current African leaders observe the world’s reaction to the passing away of Madiba Nelson Mandela? What can they say of themselves? Who among them can say with conviction “I am at the service of the people.” A look across Africa shows many who, once they have come to power gradually transform themselves into semi-gods and saviors of the people, change their constitutions to enable them stay in power, surround themselves with self-centered sycophants who actually make them believe that their countries cannot function without them. Besides, they use the weight of the presidency to suppress any opposing voices.
Mandela came to the stage, put on a great performance and exited while the applause was still very strong, indeed while there was an exhilarating standing ovation. He retired from public life saying “Don’t call me, I will call you” indicating he was not going to meddle with the office he had left with grace and dignity.
Can African leaders learn from Madiba Nelson Mandela? Isn’t it time these African rulers ask themselves “How will the world react at my passing away?” Many have ruled for decades. As of the transition of Madiba Nelson Mandela 7 African rulers have collectively been in power for over 211 year, ranging from 26 to 34 each. Seven rulers, that is. But it is never too late. I believe in human redemption.
Imagine for a moment that the many African leaders who are still on stage decades after the applause had died or even those who never got any applause but are on stage convincing themselves that they are the real deal; imagine that they collectively leave the stage and say “Don’t call me, I will call you.” Imagine the applause and jubilation that would reverberate throughout the African continent. It is never too late.
Mandela was on stage as president and leader of the people of South Africa for five years (1994-1999). Fourteen years after he left the stage, the standing applause still echoes throughout the world with such intense excitement. Kudos to you Africa’s most distinguished elder statesman. The world has been richly blessed by your life and actions.
God bless Africa!