Tinyiko Sam Maluleke
Tinyiko Sam Maluleke

No new Mandela on the horizon

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 Monday July 18, that message is the extent to which South Africans unite around the person of Nelson Mandela. 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 to unite us.

Slightly beneath the surface of many of the things (pick your fancy) that supposedly unite and cohere us positively; we will find the colossal personality of Nelson 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 that 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, Malema and Lindiwe Mazibuko — the way Nelson 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 a one hour long radio discussion commemorating Nelson Mandela’s birthday on the evening of July 17 I was confronted by many listeners who were saying to me in no uncertain terms “since we no longer have leaders of the calibre of Mandela, what shall we do?”. My attempts to deflect this question by suggesting that they focus their attention to what they can do with what they have from where they are, for fellow South Africans — 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, which is 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 has built. The radio programme callers were saying to me that 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 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 no South African monopoly and no South African speciality. 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-Kahn (until recently), Teodoro Obiang Nguema, Nicolas Sarkozy, 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. Surely, that is not too much to ask from a Noble Peace laureate?

Nor is the crisis only one of political leadership. Look across the sectors and you will either be dismayed, 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? I do not see a Mandela in the horizon. But 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 do our part in the building of reliable and sustainable institutions.

Perhaps the leaders we are looking for is none other than ourselves.