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Mandela: A reflection from South Africa

mandela

A bust of Mandela in Southbank, London. (Flickr/G. Milner)

At Liliesleaf Farm in Rivonia, Johannesburg, there is a story often told about Nelson Mandela. The African National Congress had been banned, and the young Mandela was in hiding at the Liliesleaf farmhouse, planning the armed struggle against the apartheid state. He was learning to shoot, and he aimed his rifle at a bird in a magnificent tree in the garden. To the surprise of those present, his aim was true, and the bird fell to the ground. The five-year-old son of Arthur Goldreich, another key organizer in the anti-apartheid movement, voiced his unhappiness: Why had the bird been killed? Would the bird’s parents not be sad? Mandela later recalled that this five-year-old boy taught him a profound lesson about the value of life, and how one must think deeply about the implications of taking the life of another. This compassion and restraint went on to characterize the ANC’s struggle for liberation, unlike many other liberation movements.

Nelson Mandela was not a pacifist, but he was a peacemaker. One of his greatest contribution was undoubtedly in the early-1990s transition period, when violence was escalating and a democratic outcome was by no means certain. The April 1994 elections occurred in South Africa against a backdrop of international violence, including the Rwandan genocide, in which hundreds of thousands were murdered; the Sudan civil war, which would claim more than two million lives; and the escalation of the second intifada in Palestine. In South Africa, 25,000 people died as a result of political violence, but is almost certain that if not for Mandela’s leadership, the death toll would have been far higher.

There is a song that is sung by South Africans about Madiba, the clan name of Mandela, by which he is is popularly known. The song, which is sung in isiXhosa, translates to the simple English phrase “There is nobody else like him.” A challenge was posed to me by a friend: If Nelson Mandela embodies all the qualities we look for in a leader – integrity, compassion, courage, humility among among many others – why is there nobody else like him? Why do so few other leaders embody these qualities?

The answer to this question is not easy to find. For the moment, we just have to appreciate how fortunate we in South Africa are to have had such an extraordinary person lead and unite us.