Nelson Mandela leading by example

Former president Nelson Mandela. Picture: Supplied

As a role-model, Madiba personified that at the end of the day, commands and directives are not as strong as role-modeling, when it comes to Leadership.

In his own rural poor context, he himself was privileged – from the royal family, getting early exposure to leadership role models and an education. After urbanizing, he became a professional, a lawyer, and co-owned a law firm with Oliver Tambo. So he was (relatively) well off, although among the oppressed.  Even in prison, he was a political prisoner, not a criminal.

The point is, look what he did with the few advantages he enjoyed. I was reduced to tears in the week after his funeral when Mac Maharaj, a co-prisoner at Robben Island, described how Mandela would sometimes be served better food than the other prisoners because of the esteem that even his jailers had for him. Like bread, when everyone else got only pap. He would call over other prisoners, especially the younger ones, and share it with them, recognizing the deprivation that they faced because of a shared cause.

There always has to be redress, no question. But when is the cut-off point for affirmative action? Or will there ever be one, when the rich are getting richer and ranks of the poor and unemployed are growing?

Also, as the ranks of the rich include more and more “successful” blacks, is not a class system emerging? Put another way, many poor people will not be in a forgiving mood, ready to forget “the past”. So it is double-jeopardy for South Africa to let the “wealth gap” increase.

If you are rich by your own standards, the question is: How much is enough?

If you are “historically disadvantaged” and thus deserve positive discrimination, the question can be rephrased: How long should you have that advantage, before YOU end up with more than enough?

This conundrum is no-where more evident than for those who have enjoyed financial gains from corruption, malpractice, or the taps of patronage.  In short, from State Capture.  These citizens are no longer disadvantaged.  But they should not be applauded for so-called “success”.  They are looters and plunderers, not success stories.

What if they turn into Robin Hoods?  (Robbing the rich to give to the poor – when they themselves are the target poor.)  Does that legitimize their stealing?

This becomes a challenge to the so-called “black diamonds”.  That is, to those emerging capitalists who are amassing fortunes in Africa – by playing inside the boundaries.  Tokyo Sexwale and Patrice Motsepe are among the South Africans at the forefront of this new philanthropy.   Cyril Ramaphosa also comes to mind.  People like them have the inequities of apartheid in such recent memory that their social conscience cannot be dulled by wealth. 

Sexwale spent time on Robben Island with Madiba.  Success should just fuel his social conscience, as it has done for people like Bono, Gates and Warren Buffett.  By the same token, we still have to make a distinction between political prisoners and criminals.  If they are rich because they looted and plundered, they do not deserve any special treatment in prison, they are mere criminals.  But if they got rich through legitimate business activity, and/or powerful through patience and perseverance and due process, then they still have to follow Madiba’s example and concern themselves with the welfare of those who remain disadvantaged and the development of the nation out of Inequality and into Egalitarianism.

A postscript to this is that whites are included in the equation.  Robbing from them does not make egalitarianism right.  Yes, of course, so many blacks are hugely disappointed that they have missed out on the “peace dividend”.  But plunging the country into war is not the way out of that.  Whites too will be extremely disappointed – and provoked – if the constitutional guarantees that were agreed to do not hold.  Mandela famously said that he had fought against black oppression and would also fight against white oppression if it came to that.

God help us to find one another in a way that does not sacrifice the Rule of Law and Non-racialism in the pursuit of Egalitarianism.  Don’t believe the Father of Lies if he tells you that it would be worth it.  Rather, believe Nelson Mandela who actively shared what little he had with others, as they worked together for a common cause.  United we stand, divided we fall.

Chuck Stephens is the Executive Director of the Desmond Tutu Centre for Leadership and writes in his own capacity.