The death of Nelson Mandela leaves a more obvious vacuum in the international and humane leadership of the world today-perhaps it’s safe to say given recent history in South Africa, since he stepped down as President of the Republic, there’s been no-one with an equal amount of moral and political character to replace him. But, we live in hope for others to emerge like him.
I visited Robben Island several years ago-and spent some time in the tiny cell (7 foot by 8 foot) in which Mandela had been held captive for nearly two decades. It was bare except for a pot and mat. It was here he was able to confront his demons and make peace with himself I thought. It was here that the seeds of forgiveness and reconciliation were first nurtured and grown, so when he was eventually released he was capable of leading his country down the path of peace and forgiveness rather than civil war. He proved beyond any doubt that the pen is far mightier than the sword. Mandela, along with Ghandi and Martin Luther King all stand like giant Colossi before humanity and our world leaders showing and demonstrating to us the moral and ethical way to live and be governed-but all too often we turn our backs seeking a quick hit or fix to our problems.
One of the most powerful stories shared in Nelson Mandela’s autobiography “Long Road to Freedom” is the recount of a prison officer on Robben Island. He describes this basic human experience of interaction with him in detail in recalling the sadistic and brutal Commander’s behaviour toward him at the prison where he had been held for 18 of his 27 years of imprisonment:
Badenhorst had perhaps been the most callous and barbaric
Commanding officer we had had on Robben Island. But that
day in the office, he had revealed to me that there was another side
that had been obscured but that still existed. It was a useful
reminder that all men, even the most seemingly cold-blooded,
have a core of decency, and if their hearts are touched, they
are capable of changing. Ultimately, Badenhorst was not evil;
his inhumanity had been foisted upon him by an inhuman system.
He behaved like a brute because he was rewarded for brutish
behavior. (Mandela,1994, p.549)
This is not a new idea and tends to reflect ancient wisdom from all cultures, which encourage love; tolerance, compassion and the rubric of “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. And it was this reflective wisdom which turned Mandela, by his own admission into a forgiving, honourable and just human being able to lead his country out of the darkness of racism, brutality and oppression into the light of democracy and optimism for the future. Let’s hope and pray other countries will follow such an enlightened example of political and moral leadership
Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela, 1994 (MacDonald Purnell Publishers)