Madiba shines brilliantly at ninety. One sees it in the gush of smiles that follow mention of his name almost anywhere on the African continent. He remains in the words of the late Brenda Fassie “My Black President” – a title he earned before he was elected by the South African people – and one his people continue to confer upon him almost ten years after leaving office. This is more than a mere titular role. It is certainly true that just about any number of rogues can veil their power under the mantle of a presidency, every continent has one – think Berlusconi, al-Bashir or Bush.
Nelson Mandela has come to represent the hope of ordinary people in a different kind of politics, a different kind of leader. This is the latest incarnation in a life lead as freedom fighter, liberator and reconciler. This is not the ‘Age of Hope’ that Barack Obama has come to represent – which sadly may well be moderated by capital and vested interests in Washington. It is also not to suggest that Mandela is without political and personal flaws. However, he has come to symbolise a desire amongst millions of people for leaders who are accountable, incorruptible and compassionate. Liberian President Helen Sirleaf-Johnson, another example of an extraordinary leader, reflected on these attributes at the annual Nelson Mandela Lecture in Johannesburg in the past week.
She summed up the struggle that Mandela represents when she shared her admiration for his role in returning justice to South Africa and for becoming an inspiration to people all over the world. She added, “You have taught us that if one believes in compassion for humanity we can all make a difference”.
A few weeks before the world stopped to spend the better part of a month celebrating Madiba’s birthday, South Africa was wracked by xenophobic violence. Tens of thousands of people displaced, dozens murdered. “The rainbow nation is dead”, proclaimed the media. There is no doubt that part of the rainbow died in those early winter days and nights, as we turned against the most vulnerable in our society – African foreign nationals. It was self-evident that the political class did not know what to do other than blame the lumpenproletariat. It took President Thabo Mbeki the better part of two weeks to assail those behind the attacks, addressing the nation from his favoured, red velvet armchair. The designated commander-in-chief Jacob Zuma was strangely silent on these matters, flitting in and out of the country to meet the likes of the French President. The political top brass took their cue and dashed in and out of affected communities in their motor cavalcades, stopping only long enough for the public broadcaster to record the visuals. Where the opposition Democratic Alliance is in power, in the Western Cape, it spent much valuable time callously engaged in petty verbal jousting with the provincial government and civil society.
Our leaders failed us and there can be no doubt that this was one of the most shameful moments for this young democracy. However, in the midst of this human tragedy something remarkable happened, Mandela’s people appeared out of nowhere. It was in the first reports of Muslim mothers cooking food that was distributed to refugees by Jewish students at the train station in Cape Town. Some wealthy people brought money, others brought their hands and they all did what they could to assist the refugee’s – filling a gap left by leaders who had seemingly forgotten how to govern with compassion.
The tales of brave working class women who stood up to young thugs in the middle of the night, defending their Zimbabwean and Somali neighbors remained largely unreported. In other instances mothers scraped together cash to cook meals for neighbours who had fled – a gesture of reconciliation and compassion. In Cape Town a small army of young volunteers emerged working tirelessly to assist; they were black and white, local and foreign, workers and doctors and lawyers, representing every major faith group. This was Mandela’s people in action.
It is true that not all national crises have seen the same level of response, a reminder that we cannot be numbed by the regularity of shack-fires and floods in the ghetto’s and the persistent structural inequality that causes this. However, in this one instance ordinary people showed their leaders what is possible and what is expected of them in turn.
As South Africa continues to grapple with a profound leadership crisis it is clear that those who rule should spend more time listening to their people. The majority of young South Africans are unlikely to attend youth rallies and drop their pants in an attempt to make a point; neither do they threaten to kill in defence of their political principals. As worrying are indications that senior political leaders are prepared to challenge the judiciary, and therefore the constitutional order, only to keep Jacob Zuma out of court and beyond any risk of a possible prison sentence linked to the lingering allegations of corruption. Contrast this with Nelson Mandela, who spent the better part of his life in prison because he wished to overturn a corrupt system.
While the celebrities, their hangers-on and other pretenders continue to flock around Nelson Mandela, one can only hope that he has time to spend in peace with his family. We may idolise him, but the sooner we recognise that he is always amongst us, the quicker we can get on with building the just society which he has helped us imagine is possible.
Happy Birthday Tata. May we continue to be inspired by you.