Today the world took farewell of Nelson Mandela. As a boy he herded cattle near his home in a remote rural area of South Africa to grow into one of the greatest leaders of our age, epitomising values that have become rare indeed.
Why is the world so fascinated by Mandela? When he was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1964 nine out of ten South Africans at the time probably wanted him hanged, seeing him only as a dangerous “terrorist”. For many years only a handful of people kept his memory alive. His writings were banned in South Africa. His first years of hard labour on Robben Island were especially harsh and would have broken most other people. One of the things that sustained him was the poem by William Henley:
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
When he came out prison 27 years later, he was indeed unbowed, having sacrificed everything for a common good, knowing instinctively that some day destiny would call him to duty. During my early years as a newspaper reporter in South Africa I met one of the police officers who actually arrested him outside Howick, near Pietermaritzburg in 1962. The Afrikaner policeman became very reflective when asked about Mandela. It was obvious that the man had somehow been deeply affected by this African liberator during the interrogation, for the Afrikaners too had fought a struggle against British imperialism.
Many years later I met Mandela for the first time in his home in Soweto in 1990, some months after his release. His mere presence was magical. It was not only his physical presence but something that comes from a heart or soul level. Mandela saw himself as a servant of his people, for a higher goal and destiny – he epitomised the concept of Ubuntu (humanity to others). He set an example to politicians and leaders at every level. Here are some of them:
- An amazing self-deprecating humour that kept him grounded as a human being
- He was everything but a leader on a godly throne, admitting that he made mistakes and was not a saint.
- He was a mentor and mediator, bringing together disparate groups for a common goal
- He was very disciplined. His comrades, who spent years in prison cells next to him, were woken in the morning at 5 a.m. by his skipping exercise routine. At times he could get very impatient with people around him who came late for appointments.
- He exuded a dignity that so impressed his white prison guards that they soon resorted to calling him Mr Mandela instead of the derogatory term “kaffir”
- He confronted his fears, strengths and weaknesses with much self-reflection
- At the same time he was humble and down to earth. People, especially children always felt at ease around him.
Our world has a leadership problem. Whether we look at business, politics or many other levels of society. Where are the managers, CEO’s, teachers, political party leaders, heads of government with UBUNTU qualities?