As we celebrate Nelson Mandela’s birthday this week, a case could be made that the former South African leader was the most heroic figure in the world over the last few decades of the 20th century. His stand and eventual triumph over the evil of apartheid South Africa is now legendary and brought to an end one of the great injustices the world had seen post-World War II.
To say that Mandela was a man of courage is an understatement considering the environment in which he had to work and the personal suffering he endured in order to achieve his goal of justice. However, often a person with ideals and courage lacks the perspective Mandela brought to the table. He understood that the system was evil, and it had to be dismantled, but he also could step away as well from his own convictions to recognize that there still was going to be a complicated multiracial society once the goal of achieving the end of apartheid was accomplished.
There is a whole literature on revolutions that start out with high ideals but then morph into violent and authoritarian governments of their own. To a large extent that was the difference between the French and American revolutions, both of which took place at a time when democratic values were unknown in the world. Both aspired to liberty, but only the American revolution, even with its flaws, created a peaceful democratic society and future, while the French Revolution evolved into a violent and authoritarian regime of its own.
What was the difference and how does this relate to Mandela?
In America, ideas about democracy had been circulating for over a hundred years and so there was enough legitimacy for this approach when the pressures of war and autocracy threatened them. In France, where democratic thinking was largely squelched by the authoritarian royal regime and was not truly allowed to circulate among the people, democracy could not stand up under the pressures of war, extremism and authoritarianism when they emerged soon after the revolution.
Mandela had been writing and speaking about democratic values for years before his imprisonment and his leadership on this penetrated sectors of the anti-apartheid movement. At the same time, others in the movement were equally concerned about upending the regime but had less regard for creating out of that a truly democratic and equal society. Those forces were strong enough so that if Mandela did not have the unique and dominating presence as leader of the African National Congress and the anti-Apartheid movement, things could have turned out quite differently.
Instead, Mandela’s force of personality and presence generated a revolution that not only dismantled the racist apartheid system, but did so in a way that had many of those who were apathetic about the system that existed and benefited from it, admitting that they happily voted in the presidential election that everyone knew would result in Mandela becoming president of the country.
It was the most remarkable combination of principle, toughness and sensitivity that anyone could recall. By doing so, Mandela avoided a bloody revolution that had it taken place, as many had long assumed, would have had a major negative impact on social relations going forward. Many whites who were expecting bloodshed were so relieved that a transition to an egalitarian society took place peacefully. And so they went to the ballot box not in a belligerent mood but one of thankfulness to Mandela.
At every step of the way, even after he was inaugurated as president, that unique balance of principle, toughness and sensitivity manifested itself. In particular, his setting up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, in which former members of the apartheid regime had to publicly own up to their racist past, fit into that pattern of behavior by Mandela that served the nation so well.
Clearly, Mandela was an individual with unique personal qualities. But there is much that so many of our current leaders can learn from his example. Most importantly, is the lesson that strong leadership and ideals can bring change while at the same time convincing those who need to change that such change is not only imperative, but can be good for them as well.