Ahmed Kathrada reflects on Madiba’s leadership lessons, and its relevance in today’s political climate.
The following content was published on the third anniversary of former President Nelson Mandela’s death,
Over the last few months, I have been thinking quite a bit about Nelson Mandela – ‘Madala’ as he and I called each other.
My mind wonders along the hills of Qunu, asking them to narrate to me fireside stories of one whom they have housed in life and death. Stories, as you’d know, are rich in life lessons, and solutions to complex problems are often found in simple tales.
It is a few of these stories from the life of Madiba, steeped in wisdom, courage, loyalty, discipline and selflessness, that I think need to be remembered today.
Mandela was essentially a team person. But, as an individual, he, by word and deed, also contributed towards shaping the trajectory of life for all South Africans. The story of the masses of our people is his story, and his story, is theirs. Therefore, I am not surprised when during some of my visits to schools and community-events in various parts of the country, children and adults tend to associate the liberation struggle with the name of Mandela. On the other hand, I have come across a few instances where people differ about his legacy, especially around the issue of negotiations and reconciliation. But on the whole, I marvel at how Madiba’s contribution is spoken of with praise, even by political parties that are not his own.
It is therefore only natural that we ask ourselves in what way his example can be applied to a contemporary setting.
South Africa currently finds itself on a precipice. It can either fall headlong into a political quagmire, characterised by heightened socio-economic turmoil; or it can back away from the cliff, look at the leadership examples of its predecessors and find safer, common-sense ways to ‘cross the gorge’.
It is not possible to determine what Mandela’s exact views would have been on the current political situation, but we can review the decisions he had taken at several key moments in South Africa’s history. Based on this, we would be able to ascertain what stance we should be taking at this critical juncture in our democracy.
It is a relatively more recent position that Mandela had taken as an ordinary citizen that first comes to mind, thanks to an article by The Guardian, which recalled how Madiba became one of the world’s “most effective campaigners” in tackling HIV/ AIDS. This was despite the fact that it “pitched him into opposition with his own government”, who at the time took a denialist approach to dealing with the problem.
Mandela’s speech in the year 2000 at the International AIDS Conference held in Durban, was credited as being a “watershed moment” that turned the tide against our government’s opposition to anti-retroviral treatment. His position would later compliment the Constitutional Court ruling in favour of treatment being rolled out to HIV positive pregnant women.
It takes a special type of leader to admit to his faults, and admitting to not doing enough to combat the epidemic during his time as president is exactly what Mandela did. But, it takes a remarkable individual to break-ranks, stare down dominant views, and face being unpopular amongst ‘one’s own’. It is safe to say that his views were anything but popular amongst some within the ANC’s National Executive Committee (NEC) at the time. Years later though, with a far more progressive approach to dealing with HIV/ AIDS, I think we have Mandela, and the many other civil society activists whom he supported, to thank for the strides that we have made in tackling the epidemic.
This was not the first time that Madiba had provided decisive leadership, veering away from commonly held views, even within a global context. One can clearly recall that much to the chagrin of the West, Mandela, once in power, continued to maintain links with leaders like Cuban revolutionary Fidel Castro and Palestinian freedom fighter Yasser Arafat, who supported the anti-apartheid struggle. In keeping with this approach, when Castro and Arafat visited Cape Town, on different occasions, Madiba asked me to accompany these two great leaders to Robben Island, as their “tour guide”.
Similarly, ‘Madala’ was unafraid to tell close comrades when he thought differently. Here, I can speak from personal experience. Mandela had taken the bold step of engaging the apartheid state while still in prison to initiate talks with the ANC.
He states in his biography, “I knew that my colleagues upstairs would condemn my proposal. There are times when a leader must move out ahead of the flock…” At the time, I must confess I was against Madiba engaging the enemy, but later, I would come to realise the wisdom behind it. Mandela was always ahead of his time. We must remember that it was also he, Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu, and several others, who as a young firebrand leaders, steered the ANC towards a more militant “Program of Action” in the late 1940s, turning it into the mass revolutionary movement it would become.
Mandela may have been a popular leader, but his agenda was never driven by populism. He scrupulously ensured that all his utterances and actions as President of the ANC and as the first President of the new non-racial, non-sexist, democratic South Africa were consistent with the Constitution and policies and activities of the party and government. During his tenure as President, Mandela set numerous landmark precedents, respecting and complying with the rule of law.
One example that comes to mind is the Court-case: Mandela vs Louis Luyt. As Constitutional expert Pierre de Vos writes, “Despite being the President of the country and despite being Mandela, he agreed to testify and to be subjected to cross-examination” without any “fanfare”.
I look at these examples from Madiba’s life and I recall my words at his funeral three years ago: “…we pledge to join the people of South Africa and the world to perpetuate the ideals and values for which you have devoted your life”. Reiterating my views on current politics would in essence, symbolise my continued commitment to this pledge.
I am heartened that South Africans have heeded the call to support initiatives like the Save South Africa campaign, and that veterans of the ANC, and more recently, some of its Umkhonto we Sizwe cadres, as well as members from within the NEC, have begun to take positions that may not be wholly popular. Like Mandela, I believe that their ‘breaking of ranks’ in the interest of the betterment of this country, is a step that in years to come, will be appreciated – just as today we thank Mandela for his resolute stance on HIV/ AIDS.
Similarly, we are heartened that from within the ranks of our movement, there are leaders like Madiba, with credibility, accountability, commitment to the people of South Africa and foresight. They are leaders who like Mandela, are ahead of their times. Such leaders are able to rejuvenate and modernise the ANC so that it can meet the needs of the 21st century, while still valuing its old and wise traditions. Such leaders have been unafraid to put their positions to the test.
Just a few days ago, I attended the launch of Save South Africa’s Motion of No Confidence in President Jacob Zuma. Drumbeats could be heard around Constitution Hill, where the event was being held. I am told that similar beats resonated at St Alban’s Church, where Save South Africa itself was launched. As we remember Mandela in death, it is precisely these rumblings that must roll on, heralding a more invigorated civil society and active citizenry that will hold government to account.
It is these drumbeats that I think Madiba would have wanted to hear. It is also these beats that future generations will value as they listen to the hills tell them fireside stories of forefathers who were courageous enough to drum up support for the South Africa they dreamed of.
* Ahmed Kathrada is an anti-apartheid activist and Rivonia Trialist. He has a Foundation in his name that aims to deepen non-racialism.