Today would have been Nelson Mandela’s 100th birthday. Hard to believe that he’s been gone from among us for five years already and questions continue to linger about his abiding influence. Some of it is easy to figure. As a person of moral stature, it is likely that no one from this present generation will stand as such a colossus of meaning and integrity. As a family man, his life was mixed – as one would expect from someone so fully dedicated to a cause of freedom and having to spend almost 30 years in prison as a result of that commitment. As a leader for human rights, his practices were varied, but the ultimate outcomes of his efforts are now beyond dispute. And as a human being, he has ascended to that rarified realm occupied by people like Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.
But will his sojourn on earth have left any lingering effects on politics itself – its usefulness, calling, power, and ability to draw us together? On that point things aren’t clear.
As a politician himself, it remains difficult to assess someone’s effectiveness who had been elevated to almost godlike status even before entering the rough and tumble world of politics. His most effective campaigning was done from a prison cell on Robben Island and his influence only grew more magnified by his absence. That’s not normal in a world where politicians have to put on their game face and attend as many public events as possible. He had been a revolutionary who somehow ascended to the peak of power through peaceful means. So, yes, that kind of life represents a challenge to our current practice of politics in almost every sense. Despite all the eulogies, there remains something rather uncomfortable at watching a grouping of political leaders laud someone’s principles and actions that they have no plan of replicating themselves. We understand that leaders honour this man’s legacy, but can they not do more than commemorate?
Part of Mandela’s greatness in our collective mind comes from the reality that so many others in politics fail to attempt such a standard, opting instead to tow the party line. Nelson was a moral compass. Of how many others in politics can we say such a thing? There are some, but they grow increasingly rare as the political elite become just as lost as the citizenry.
Mandela’s life carries lessons for all of us, not just our leaders. And in many ways, we have all failed to carry the torch he bore for us, even if only for a brief time. We can castigate our leaders all we want, and there is merit in such an action, but Mandela’s main energies were expended in convincing his fellow citizens that it was they who had to make the change.
Nelson Mandela once said he found a certain rectitude in Vaclav Havel’s observation: “The tragedy of modern man is not that he knows less and less about the meaning of his own life, but that it bothers him less and less.” The South African leader understood that if he failed at this point – citizens – then leadership would not matter. So, he stirred them up to a higher calling and bore the scars of that calling in his own life – body and soul. This is the kind of leadership we require – not just challenging citizens, but actually serving as examples of what cooperation and sacrifice could do.
The failure of our political and economic elites is something we love to harp on. It’s too late for that now. Their failure to secure such a destiny is daily reducing the public space, it’s true, but our unwillingness to take them to task – to debate, to challenge, to run for office ourselves, and, yes, to vote – has paved the way for their underperformance. There is no point in criticizing leaders who merely call to our self-serving instincts. We are better than this and it’s time to show it. The question is: will we become that change?