By pure coincidence, two apartheid-era South Africans, Mkhize and Van der Merwe — black and a white — find themselves as neighbours in a foreign a land. Back home they could never have been neighbours. But out there in foreign shores they “discover” that they actually have more in common than with anyone else around them. So they become bosom buddies. Unfortunately, Van der Merwe and Mkhize end up on the wrong side of the law. As a result they are both sentenced to death. Mkhize goes into the death chamber first. Once inside, he is given a choice — death by the rope or the electric chair. Seeking a quick and painless end, Mkhize chooses the chair. After strapping him up, the hangman discovers that the death chair is malfunctioning — it won’t switch on. As the law of the land provides under such circumstances, Mkhize is set free. On his way out he finds a stunned Van der Merwe, who inquires what happened. “Broer’, in there they will give you a choice between the rope and the chair. I say, take the rope broer; the bloody chair does not work”, says Mkhize with a wry smile as he walks happily out of the door. That is how much Mkhize and Van der Merwe had in common!
So what do South Africans have in common today? Only one answer can be given with certainty. Nelson Mandela! If there is a message that comes out of the International Mandela Day which the world celebrated on July 18, it is the extent to which South Africans unite around his person. Nothing else comes close. For some time, sport has “threatened” to unite us. The excesses of the film Invictus notwithstanding, the 1995 Rugby World Cup did generate a warm and unfamiliar feeling of unity –- momentarily. But we must question whether even rugby would have succeeded to unite us without Mandela. With the Fifa World Cup last year, soccer had the opportunity to unite us. For two months it almost did. Other sporting codes have tried. Nor have our national days, anthems and symbols succeeded entirely in uniting us.
Beneath the surface of the many things (pick your fancy) that supposedly unite and cohere us positively; we find the colossal personality of Mandela. He is at this moment the ultimate glue of the fragile and flailing social fabric of our country and our world. I am aware of no one and no thing brings South Africans together — children and adults, men and women, blacks and whites, Indians and Africans, rich and poor, Muslims and adherents of African religion, Zille and Zuma — the way Mandela does. He is the one person that is invoked across all our divides. When South Africans are desperate or in doubt they invoke Mandela — most times metaphorically, many times literally
On an hour-long radio evening discussion commemorating Mandela’s birthday on July 17 2011, many listeners said: “Since we no longer have leaders of the calibre of Mandela, what shall we do?”. My attempts to deflect this question by suggesting they focus their attention on what they could do with what they have — which is what Mandela Day is all about — did little to discourage them. One after the other they called the radio station to ask me rhetorically; “Where are the Mandelas of today?”
My listeners were forcing me to face a reality I was avoiding; namely, that as a country we and our leaders are in danger of failing to sustain, let alone build on, the foundations of social cohesion that the likes of Mandela have built. The callers were saying to me that today we lack citizens and leaders who imitate Mandela. “Where are the leaders and citizens who sacrifice, inspire and unite”, they asked me.
The radio programme ended, but I continued to reflect on these matters. What does a country do when among the bunch of pretenders to leadership, few — if any — are prepared to lead by example, self-sacrifice and the principle of unity? What has happened to a country when the vast majority of citizenry — who live in abject poverty — opt out of holding their leaders to account except through the desperate, disparate and increasingly chronic acts of violence and sheer vandalism? What do citizens do when they find that few of the people who lead them inspire trust and confidence? What should we do with leaders who work for their stomachs and inspire disunity? Most importantly, what do we and our leaders do when we know, deep in our hearts, that the prevailing economic and social system is designed to manufacture poverty and inequality?
The crisis of leadership is of course not just a South African crisis. It is a global crisis. Some in the current class of world leaders are hardly inspiring. It includes the likes of Silvio Berlusconi, Sepp Blatter, Muammar Gaddafi, Dominique Strauss-Khan (until recently), Teodoro Obian Nguema, Nicolas Sarcozy, Bashar al-Assad, Robert Mugabe as well as Barack Obama. Yes, Barack Obama, in whom we have invested so much hope — perhaps too much hope, in hindsight. Unlike some of his fierce critics, some of whose motives are questionable, I do not expect him to right all the wrongs he found on his the desk at the White House. I just wish he would stop authorising the killing of human beings. Is that too much to ask from a Noble Peace Prize laureate?
Nor is the crisis only one of political leadership. Look across the sectors and you will either be dismayed or frightened or both.
So where is the factory that will produce the next Mandela? Maybe the next Mandela will come from Guantanamo Bay, Gaza City, Kibera in Kenya or Zandspruit squatter camp in Johannesburg. Who knows? While I do not see a Mandela in the horizon, I am not entirely discouraged. While charismatic, exemplary and inspirational leaders may not be currently or immediately available, we as citizens must at all times insist on competent leaders and play our role in the building of lasting and reliable institutions. And perhaps there is truth in the trite suggestion that the leader we are looking for is none other than ourselves.