New Year’s Resolutions: Mandela’s Lessons

Historical figures pass away, but the world – after mourning – moves on. As we enter the second month of 2014, Sabrina Marsh examines what today’s political leaders can learn from the legacy of the late Nelson Mandela.

Nelson Mandela by David Flores

© JulieFaith/Creative Commons

Nelson Mandela was a worldwide symbol of the apartheid struggle and a key transformative figure of the last century. As the world continues to pay tribute to one of the great leaders in human history, Africa’s heads of state should use this period of reflection to learn from his legacy. Mandela taught the world much about leadership, forgiveness and courage. However, we must recognise, too, his inevitable limitations. Africa faces many challenges: the people of South Africa, and Africa as a whole, continue to suffer from internal violence and economic dislocation, and pressing poverty remains. The continent’s leaders would do well to take on board these three resolutions for 2014.

Resolution 1: Tolerance and cooperation

Africa’s leaders must recognise the importance of cooperation in the drive towards political stability and progress. After 27 years in confinement, Mandela’s promotion of patriotism encouraged South Africans to overcome their suspicions and work with their adversaries.
Mandela’s approach is not without criticism. Some argue that his policies upheld previous inequalities between white South Africans and the indigenous population. Others maintain that his interpretation of reconciliation failed to bring many human rights offenders to justice.

These arguments serve as a warning to leaders of today: key to building a strong country is the promotion of unity through the incorporation of positive elements from both the old and new systems. Although Mandela’s approach posed serious political, economic and constitutional challenges for his successors, he created an all-encompassing platform for peaceful resolutions.

Resolution 2: Humility in leadership

Nelson Mandela

© CRArtist/Creative Commons

Mandela showed his fellow leaders that neither great wealth nor cutthroat ambitions are necessary for a president to garner widespread respect and admiration. Although there have been claims that Mandela allowed certain members of the African National Congress to personally profit from his time in office, one should not forget that he set a powerful precedent by standing down after one term. While some post-colonial leaders did willingly hand over power before Mandela, there were far more who did not, and remained entrenched, to the detriment of their countries. In order to build lasting legacies, African leaders must understand that the requirements of responsibility preclude the desire for power.

Though perhaps not fully realised, Mandela’s actions created a model for political freedom and development, as well as shared prosperity, which supported the transition of South Africa towards democracy. His countrymen must follow in his footsteps. Current ANC members, including President Jacob Zuma, face constant allegations of corruption and impropriety. On some counts, corruption robs South Africa of one-fifth of its GDP. Firm action is needed to counter these economic crimes in the interests of a better, positive Africa.

Resolution 3: The HIV/AIDS crisis and the fight against poverty

A notable failing of Mandela, as president, was his inaction in confronting the AIDS epidemic. As a result, today South Africa faces enormous social, economic and medical challenges, with over 2.5 million orphans. During his presidency Mandela and his party were in denial. The indecisiveness of Mandela’s chosen replacement, Thabo Mbeki, made matters worse.

After stepping down, Mandela sought to increase awareness of HIV/AIDS, pushing it up the international agenda. He supported public health efforts and used his reputation to help spread awareness of the twin diseases through the Nelson Mandela Foundation. By demonstrating how the shame of AIDS should be challenged, he has shown how individuals as well as leaders can learn from mistakes, something his cohorts in neighbouring countries should do.

Mandela was no saint and his life included violence and controversy. Nevertheless, Africa has no choice but to ensure that his legacy lives on in the constant quest for achievement and progress.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.

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