By Zuki Mqolomba
”Bring back Nelson Mandela/Bring him back home to Soweto/I want to see him walking down the streets of South Africa tomorrow/Nelson Mandela” [Hugh Masekela, Bring back Nelson Mandela]
”The year 1963/The People’s President/Was taken away by security men/All dressed in a uniform/The brutality, brutality/Oh no, my black president/Him and his comrades/Were sentenced to isolation/For many painful years/For many painful years/Many painful years of hard labour/They broke ropes/But the spirit was never broken/Never broken/Oh no, my black president” [tributary lyrics of Brenda Fassie, My Black President]
No other songs best represented the collective imagination and the national sentiment of South Africans of their president, the people’s president, than Hugh Masekela’s Bring Back Nelson Mandela and Brenda Fassie’s Black President, to name but a few; freedom songs, national tributes, recorded and released in the 1980s, later banned in their home country for fear of incitement.
Not only was Nelson Mandela the foremost and most famous modern day political prisoner of his time, he was, first and foremost, a leader of the African National Congress; founder of its most vibrant youth wing; leader and brainchild of its Umkhonto we Sizwe; and the first elected president of democratic South Africa.
When we speak of Nelson Mandela, we speak of a cadre of the ANC, the people’s president, father of the parliament of the people, leader of the revolutionary programme of the ANC.
Nelson Mandela was not only a humanitarian; he was an activist, a soldier and freedom fighter. His struggles were the struggle of his people, ordinary people, and a struggle built on great ideals. The freedom of others from domination was his life. He used his talents and gifts to realise these. His life’s struggle and personal philosophy can be summarised in his very own words:
“During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
Nelson Mandela was not just a populist, a rhetoricist, a dictator or demagogue but Nelson Mandela led with the full understanding of the political and structural nuances of the day, fully convinced that his freedom was intrinsically linked to the freedom of his people. He understood that a life well lived was a life that was dedicated to enhancing the freedoms of others. This is beautifully captured in Long Walk to Freedom that; “Freedom is indivisible; the chains on any one of my people were the chains on all of them, the chains on all of my people were the chains on me.” He truly understood the true meaning of personal freedom; that personal freedom found real expression in collective freedoms. His was a deep revelation that, “…to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”
Mandela led by a relentless, uncompromising and conquering faith in struggle.
Now, the liberation movement has gone through seasons of immense difficulty, almost defeats, serious prosecution, and at times it seemed of natural consequence to be consumed by currents of despondency, unable to see beyond the struggles of today. Nelson Mandela, however, had an exceptional ability to see beyond today’s challenges and today’s struggles. He turned prison gates into centres of learning. He turned community funerals into lecture rooms and incubators of hope. He revived people’s dreams, and inspired others to move beyond their fears. He was able to provide action where there was hesitation, optimism where there was cynicism, determination where there was floundering to realise a better tomorrow. This is beautifully captured in his autobiography when he acknowledges that he is fundamentally an optimist: “Whether that comes from nature or nurture, I cannot say. Part of being optimistic is keeping one’s head pointed toward the sun, one’s feet moving forward. There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That way lays defeat and death.”
Mandela led “today with the future in mind”. He was inspired by great vision, and exceptional abilities to build tomorrow today. Mandela often understood the actions of the congress movement, in terms of their consequences tomorrow, which is why he never responded to racism with racism, or violence with violence. He had an exceptional ability to build tomorrow today. He built with the future in mind.
What is most remarkable about the legacy of Nelson Mandela, however, was his ability to lead inclusively, to lead both as leader and follower, maintaining the dignity of even those he differed with. Mandela led with people, winning people over through co-option and not by coercion. He understood that an effective leader is he who leads with people and among them, and he who allows himself to be led as well. He is often reported to have said, while reminiscing about his boyhood herding cows that, “You know, you can only lead them from behind.” This has been a winning strategy, particularly with unpopular campaigns.
In line with the ANC’s call for the reconstruction of the soul of not only the congress movement but broader society at large, the legacy of the leadership of Nelson Mandela, in line with Freedom Charter aspirations, is in essence about ensuring that we remain steadfast in our commit to building the ANC’s new cadre.
Zuki Mqolomba is a researcher, policy analyst and scholar activist. She has two Masters degrees (MA Poverty and Development and an MSocSci Public Policy) from the University of Sussex (UK) and University of Cape Town respectively. She used to work as an ETC Consultant for the World Bank in Washington DC. She is now a Director: Economic Research and Writing for the Department of Public Enterprises. She writes in her personal capacity.