July 18 is Nelson Mandela’s 94th birthday, a day that will also mark the fourth annual Mandela Day celebrations. International Nelson Mandela day was endorsed by the United Nations in 2009 in honor of Nelson Mandela and his 67 years in public service. Celebrants are expected to devote 67 minutes of their day to community service. In addition to 67 minutes of community service in his honour, an annual concert is held in London to fund raise for the fight against HIV/AIDS. More than 20 years ago, Mandela wrote that “nothing brings more pride and satisfaction to the old guard than to know that the ideas for which they have sacrificed so much are coming to fruition at last.”
But it is this very question of Mandela’s ideas coming to fruition that remains debatable in South Africa.
Quite recently, Desmond Tutu, another iconic freedom fighter and peace-loving human being, compared the current African National Congress (ANC), a party Mandela headed, to apartheid. To be precise, he stated that the current ANC government is worse than apartheid. The current ANC leadership denied Tutu’s dear friend, the Dalai Lama, a visa to attend his birthday in South Africa. Mr. Tutu admitted too much anger on his part, but could it be that the denial of visa to a spiritual leader and global peace-loving icon was too reminiscent of the apartheid pass laws that isolated blacks to townships and prevented ANC leaders from leaving the country? Mandela is too old to speak publicly now, but one could almost visualize his own anger as he thinks of the days when the apartheid regime had the ultimate control of who could leave or return to the country. Perhaps it was this déjà-vu that aggravated Mr. Tutu, a man whose usual smile could brighten the Amazon at night.
Then there is the chaos within the ANC itself, especially the Youth League and its inimitable and uncontrollable leader, Julius Malema. He has been busy brewing high-ranking ANC leaders against each other and constantly insulting the old guards. He has recently been expelled from the ANC, but as defiant Malema is, there is no chance he will depart without a fight. His verbal spears, as sharp as the spears of his Zulu ancestors, continue to fly across the South African political stage, leaving severe injuries among the ANC leadership.
Another severe problem facing modern South Africa is the enormity of the poverty among black South Africans, and the fiscal irresponsibility of the new black elites within the ANC. In a recent CNN interview with Christian Amanpour, former South African president, F. W. de Clarke, expressed serious concern about the heightened poverty among black South Africans. He even alluded to the fact that Mandela would be appalled at the sight of the current ANC leadership. However, the loyal ANC comrade he is, Mandela was recently seen in public only to salute the baton marking the centennial celebration of the party he devoted his entire life to.
In his public service days, Mandela was a benevolent leader; one whose actions were always taken in anticipation of those he served. He believes in leadership on the periphery, but never relented to take the lead when shadow leadership failed to achieve what was in the interest of the people. Mandela is often guided by the metaphor of leading like a sheppard. A good leader, like a good sheppard, “stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go on ahead, where upon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind.” However, when he decided that the only way of bringing both the ANC and the apartheid regime to the table was to initiate negotiations alone and inform his comrades later, Mandela argued that sometimes a good sheppard must go ahead of the flock to direct their journey.
At 94 Mandela can no longer act on the African leadership stage. He could have been king after his release from prison, where he had been for more than 27 years; but like all great leaders, he chose a humble retirement after one term to prevent the monopolization of power. For the “Black Pimpernel,” a name Mandela acquired during his underground days as commander of Nmkhonto we Sizwe (MK), armed wing of the ANC, legacy lies not in ranks and awards, but in the “knowledge that in your day you did you duty and lived up to the expectations of your fellow men is in itself a rewarding experience and magnificent achievement.”
But at 94, it should be this generation of African leaders who must live up to the expectations of the great Mandela.