We’re down to our last living hero. Happy birthday Nelson Mandela

IS Nelson Mandela the only hero left as he prepares to celebrate his 90th birthday tomorrow? It is difficult to conclude otherwise, despite recent criticism of his muteness about Robert Mugabe.

Many historians will agree that the South African novelist Nadine Gordimer skilfully summed up the reason for the reverence in which Mandela is held when she addressed the African National Congress (ANC)in 1993: “Let us now praise famous men. Nelson Mandela is the famous man today. One of the few who, in contrast with those who have made our 20th century infamous for fascism, racism and war, will mark it as an era that achieved advancement for humanity. So will his name live in history…” Gordimer continued: “There are two kinds of leaders. There is the man or woman who creates the self — his or her life — out of the drive of personal ambition and there is the man or woman who creates a self out of response to people’s needs. To the one, the drive comes narrowly from within; to the other, it is a charge of energy that comes of others’ needs and the demands these make. Mandela’s dynamism of leadership is that he has within him the selfless quality to receive and act upon this charge of energy.”

That was the year Mandela jointly received the Nobel Peace Prize with the former leader of South Africa’s white population, FW de Klerk, three years after the ANC leader had walked free from his 27 years in jail.

At that stage, Mandela’s importance was, for many, still symbolic — the man who had endured huge personal suffering, demonstrated the brutality of the apartheid regime and, ultimately, the triumph of the human spirit while always retaining an aura of dignity and lack of bitterness against his enemies.

But in many ways his biggest challenges were still to come and he dealt with them through a mixture of skill and pragmatism.

Installed as president in 1994, he had the formidable task of trying to ensure South Africa did not implode.

The violence of the previous year — particularly in the face of white racists and in the aftermath of the murder of Chris Hani, the leader of the ANC’s armed wing, and second in popularity only to Mandela among black youth — suggested the country was on the verge of disaster and an all-out race war.

Perhaps one of the cleverest things he did was to use sport, specifically rugby, to find something through which he could embrace the sports-mad Afrikaners. New York Times journalist Anthony Lewis recalls the story of the astonishment of the Springboks when Mandela appeared in the locker room prior to the final of the rugby world cup in Johannesburg in 1995, wearing the number 6 green jersey of their captain to wish them luck. When they beat New Zealand — a shock result — Mandela emerged on the field to present the trophy, still wearing the green jersey, and the Afrikaner crowd broke into a chant: “Nelson, Nelson, Nelson.”

In some ways, Mandela had a very old-fashioned and principled approach to leadership based on a strict interpretation of the notion of collective responsibility. Early on in his presidency, he telephoned the ministers in his government in the middle of the night, woke them from their slumbers and insisted they come to see him.

When they arrived, he admonished them for their mistakes and mismanagement and informed them that the reason he could not sleep was because of their incompetence and he saw no reason why they should sleep soundly while he could not sleep worrying about their less than impressive performances.

Not all were performing badly. Allister Sparks, author of Beyond the Miracle: Inside the New South Africa, published in 2003, singled out Education Minister Kader Asmal, the former Dean of Humanities at Trinity College, Dublin, as “the star of the Mandela cabinet”.

This was particularly important in view of the fact that one of the first things Mandela did in his post-incarceration interviews with journalists — as recounted by Irish journalist Seamus Martin who interviewed him in 1990 — was to, in Mandela’s own words, “take the opportunity to clarify a false impression that has got around which suggested that the ANC puts liberation before education. This has never been the case. I have asked the young people in Soweto to return to school”.

The challenge for Mandela and his government was not just to attempt to create a peaceful and prosperous South Africa but to give leadership in a continent that was plagued by despotism, corruption and Aids, and subjected to a western view that painted all African countries as incapable of running their own affairs.

Within South Africa, crime and unemployment loomed large, but 10 years after the first democratic elections in 1994 there was much that was positive to report: more than half the population received a free, if basic, water supply, inner city rejuvenation was well advanced and the country was successfully marketed as a desirable holiday destination. On the downside, carjacking was rampant, street crime remained prevalent and unemployment reached 63% in certain parts of the country. Mandela’s successor Thabo Mbeki’s approach to the Aids crisis tarnished his reputation after he foolishly fell under the spell of a group of American scientists who questioned the link between HIV and Aids. Mandela, who had no truck with these dissidents, was able to use his authority to make the case for the availability of anti-retroviral drugs.

Mandela was also quite happy to have a few words with the rich and famous who were more than eager to part with large sums of money for the privilege of an exclusive audience with him, the proceeds going to the orphans of Aids’ victims in Africa, just one example of the work of the charitable Nelson Mandela Foundation.

RECENTLY there has been justifiable criticism of Mandela for his relative silence on the brutality of Mugabe and his enforcers in Zimbabwe who have murdered and detained their opponents at will.

In June, Christopher Hitchens, a columnist with Vanity Fair magazine, pulled no punches: “It is the silence of Mandela, much more than anything else, that bruises the soul. It appears to make a mockery of all the brave talk about international standards for human rights, about the need for internationalist solidarity and the brotherhood of man. There is perhaps only one person in the world who symbolises that spirit, and he has chosen to betray it. Or is it possible… that the old lion will summon one last powerful growl?”

Mandela did choose to comment, but it was too late and his words too tame. He merely called Mugabe’s regime “a tragic failure of leadership”.

That will not satisfy his critics, but it is also difficult not to respect the sentiments he expressed at his recent birthday concert in London: “After 90 years of life it is time for new hands to lift the burdens.”

The real tragedy is that Mandela’s successor, Thabo Mbeki, in failing to confront Mugabe, has lacked leadership and courage in his response to the Zimbabwean crisis and has shown no willingness to learn from Mandela and “create a self out of response to people’s needs”.

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