On Sunday, South Africa laid to rest its “greatest son.” Celebrities from over hundred countries descended upon South Africa, paying tribute to the great Nelson Mandela. Many of them eulogised Mandela, but most befitting tribute was the presence of multiracial congregation, embodying the very principles for which Mandela lived. In his tribute, US President Barack Obama declared Mandela as a “giant and great liberator of history. “ He said Mandela showed us that with all human frailties, man can still achieve the impossible, and his virtues and achievements are worth emulating.

Nelson Mandela was born in Umtata, South Africa on July 18, 1918. His father, Henry Mandela was the chief of Madiba clan. Mandela gave up his claim for chieftainship and went on to become a lawyer. In 1944, he joined African National Congress. After the Sharpeville massacre in 1960, Mandela gave up notions of non-violence in favour of armed resistance against the apartheid regime. He was arrested in 1962, and was put on trial over charges of treason.

During the trial, Mandela accepted his role in “planning sabotage”, and made these memorable remarks, “I have fought against white domination. And I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society... It is an ideal which I hope to live by...and it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

He was sentenced to life imprisonment, most of which he spent at Robben Island prison, near Cape Town. After 27 years of incarceration, on February 11, 1990, the South African government released Mandela. After a political settlement, South Africa made a transition towards non-racial democracy, with Nelson Mandela becoming the first black President of South Africa.

Instead of vengeance, he forgave his captors, and even invited them to his swearing in ceremony. It was this spirit of reconciliation, liberty and equality that endeared him to millions world over, and saved South Africa from turning into another Congo or a Zimbabwe. After completing one term in office, he retired from active politics.

In his seminal book “Parallel lives”, Greek author Plutarch writes that the true character of a man is depicted in small instances of life. Small instances in Mandela’s life speak volumes about his character, underscoring the real essence of his leadership.

According to Strini Moodley, a former inmate at Robben Island, Mandela didn’t care much for the titles and honours. Moodley states that in a prison there was a 17 year old white warder, who called Mandela by his first name. When Moodley protested, Mandela replied, “oh come on my boy don’t worry about that, these are little things. You’ve got to take them in a stride.”

Jessie Duarte, one of Mandela’s personal assistant, said that Mandela always made his own bed. Once he went to China where it is a custom for the host to clean the guest room, otherwise it is considered an insult, but even there Madiba made his own bed. When it was brought into his notice, he gathered the hotel staff and explained his reasons.

According to Duarte, “he [Mandela] never really cared about what great people think of him, but he did care about what small people thought of him. He didn’t mind if he insulted a very important person, because he said they could defend and fight for themselves. But he would never insult someone who did not have power.”

Richard Stengel assisted Mandela in his autobiography. He narrates that once they were flying in a small propeller plane, whose engine stopped during the flight, and the plane had to make an emergency landing. During this turmoil, Mandela kept on reading a newspaper without showing any sign of fear. After getting off, Mandela confided that he got very scared. According to Stengel,” it was such a revelation because that’s what courageous is. Courage is not being scared. Courage is being terrified and not showing it.”

Such instances reveal that behind Mandela’s success lied a vision, dogged will power, humility, courage, empathy, self-awareness, and a moral strength; all the traits that make a leader great. But the greatest lesson to be learned from his life is that true leaders live the life they preach. They go through the toils of a common man, sacrificing for a common cause, without expecting a gratitude and shunning the limelight.

All of this exposes the hypocrisy of the developing world’s leadership, like ours. Our rulers live like sultans, enjoying the fruits of power and wealth, surrounded by hundreds of guards, sending their children to foreign schools, visiting the best international hospitals for a medical checkups, owning industrial estates and still claiming to be the representative of the poor and deprived.

Mandela found a racially segregated South Africa, and left a country with interracial harmony and equality. Perhaps, that is the essence of a great leadership. Great leaders make things better. As former US president Harry S Truman said, “ In periods where there is no leadership, society stands still. Progress occurs when courageous, skilful leaders seize the opportunity to change things for the better.” And perhaps that how we all will remember Nelson Mandela.

 The writer is a freelance columnist and has worked as a broadcast journalist.


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