On Mandela: Leading From The Front

POSTED — December 9, 2013 — Column, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

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Leading From The Front

Probably only a few surviving Germans of a certain age, as well as South African baby boomers, can viscerally apprehend what it’s like to grow up in a country where almost unquestioned animal-like racial prejudice is simply in the air you breathe from childhood. Nelson Mandela, together with F. W. de Klerk, brought that environment to an unexpected so-far-peaceful end in South Africa.  Mandela’s death has been coming for so long that it seemed more of a relief than anything else. I was heading home from teaching when I saw a tweet that announced his passing.

There have been many revolutionaries, but Mandela was an unorthodox one who left a universally admired stamp of not just personality but character on the entire world. As a revolutionary, he was both a radical and a conservative.

The Nationalist Party government that jailed Mandela on Robben Island came to power in 1948. They hated and feared Communism, not because the Nationalists were lovers of the individual freedom threatened by totalitarianism, but because they were totalitarian themselves. They denounced their liberal opposition as “radicals.” When I was at the University of Cape Town in the 1960s, a student leader at an anti-apartheid rally pointed out that it was was in fact the Nationalists who were the real radicals, intent on rooting out time-honored conservative democratic principles declaring  states of emergency, instituting arbitrary detention without trial, banning opponents and opposition literature, and violating human rights.

Mandela started out as a conservative, training to be a lawyer, then turned towards civil disobedience in the 1950s with the ANC Campaign for the Defiance of Unjust Laws. He was charged with treason, and was eventually acquitted. Later he turned away from Gandhian nonviolence, went underground, and was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1964. Speaking at his trial, he said: “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities.”

South Africa was headed towards a bloodbath. When Prime Minister De Klerk finally realized the futility of preserving white dominance, and negotiated with and then freed him, Mandela, despite decades in confinement, showed his ability to not be bound by the past. He sought no revenge or retribution. He and de Klerk showed the world a wonderful moment in which they both stopped behaving mechanically, refusing to be automata. They saw the historical inevitability of the paths they were on, and, rather than fulfilling their preprogrammed destinies, broke the cycle of karma and got one step ahead of where history was taking them. I can think of only one other recent politician who seems to have done something similar, Mikhail Gorbachev, but Mandela did it better. His actions were radical, but also deeply conservative. 

In similar spirit, let us not forget de Klerk, who had much more to lose.


Today, politicians do whatever it takes to stay in power. They poll the country, find out what attitudes will sell, and then set up organizations to send different messages to different constituencies, trying to make themselves look like what the polls tell them people want. Mostly, they don’t lead at all, and if they do, they lead from behind.

Mandela had a vision for what a good society would look like, and tried to encourage people towards it. “There are times when a leader must move out ahead of the flock, go off in a new direction, confident that he is leading his people the right way,” he wrote after being freed. He led from the front, having paid the price that guaranteed he knew firsthand what he was talking about.

Unlike most post-independence African  leaders, he left the ring when he still held the title. He didn’t try to hang on and he didn’t ask to change the constitution to suit him. Always radically conservative.

The current crop of South African and world leaders cannot hold a candle to him. In South Africa vast number of blacks still live in makeshift shanty towns you see only on the way to and from the airport, despite twenty years of black government and the rise of a black middle class.. There is tons of corruption — “baadjies vir boeties,”  or jackets for friends, in the Afrikaans idiom I learned. A man I chatted with in a fish-and-chip shop in Cape Town on a recent visit said to me: “It’s true there’s a few million well-to-do people of all colors here. But then there’s a massive invisible underclass who have nothing, and you never see them.” 

Mandela didn’t quite succeed — he was human — but there is no one in any government or opposition today who is his equal, or even tries to be. When I think of him I somehow think of him embodying the concluding verse of Blake’s Jerusalem:

I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England's green and pleasant land.

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