Nelson Mandela’s Legacy of Inclusive Leadership

December 9, 2014

It is extremely rare that we can genuinely say that an individual changed the world. But Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela did. His release from prison in February 1990 and his emergence on the international stage was at a time of sweeping global change when the communist regimes of Eastern Europe were being swept aside. It was not just in Europe that change was evident. The collapse of the former Soviet bloc and resurgence in nationalism spread through central Asia resulting in newly independent states. The pressures for political liberalization were also felt in Asia – in China, South Korea and Taiwan. A half-century of brittle authoritarian rule was coming to an abrupt and welcome end.

No single person represented this geopolitical shift toward liberal democracy better than Nelson Mandela. Change in South Africa must be viewed in the context of this time, not the “End of History” as Francis Fukuyama labeled it, but most certainly a pivot of history. As part of this, South Africa’s political transition to an inclusive democracy has been described as a “miracle”. This was largely due to the leadership of Mandela – a man who represented forgiveness, integrity, trust and hope – whose strength of character was so strong that power could not corrupt it. Most importantly for South Africa, Mandela understood that he needed to forge an inclusive nation.

Whilst Asian countries are often described as experiencing an economic miracle, South Africa’s political miracle has not translated into an economic one. Whilst South Africa has re-integrated into the global community of nations, it has not integrated domestically. Economic divisions between South Africans have never been starker and the country now has the world’s highest GINI coefficient – a measure of inequality – even more so than during the time of apartheid. The term “developmental state” – so often bandied about in government circles – has yet to become a reality providing for its needy and increasingly impatient citizens. The government has not been able to balance the forces of enablement (for business) and intervention (by the state) in driving inclusive growth. Indeed there are many politicians who do not grasp the link between growth and development, rather focusing their efforts on “re-distribution” of existing wealth.

The memory of Mandela’s leadership takes us back to a time when we believed in the rainbow nation before successive and divisive politicians destroyed that dream for us South Africans. His shoes were simply too big for them to fill.

Last Sunday, I took my two small children to pay our respects at Mandela’s home in the Johannesburg suburb of Houghton where he peacefully passed away on the night of the 5th of December. The gathering of people outside his home was both sad whilst also celebratory. I have never seen South Africans so united, spontaneously breaking out in song singing the national anthem and others in praise of the great man. The feeling evoked the moment that our country enjoyed during the first racially inclusive democratic elections.

We placed flowers on the street corner, took pictures and truly felt part of a nation – a feeling so rare in present-day South Africa; a feeling that has been lost amongst the populace coinciding with Mandela’s disappearance from the public scene. It was essential for them to be there – to know that they were there and one day they will grasp the magnitude of the moment.

So where are we headed “after Mandela”? Every defining moment that South Africa has experienced over the last two decades have involved the great man – his broad smile when he cast his vote in the elections on the 27th of April 1994; the day we won the Rugby World Cup in 1995 and Mandela donned a Springbok green and gold jersey and symbolically embraced the Afrikaner community; the final of the FIFA World Cup on a cold night in Johannesburg in July 2010 when he entered the stadium on a golf cart to wave to the crowd and global audience; and now with his passing he has united South Africans once again.

Mandela was the greatest African. What he stood for and his legacy transcends all differences. His appeal was to the deepest values of humanity. His leadership was inclusive where all South Africans felt part of a nation. This has been at the root of the lack of development in Africa – there is no sense of nationhood and inclusiveness amongst its populations.

South Africa will never realize its economic potential if it remains so internally divided. A plea from a patriotic South African to our politicians: Please do not undermine the racial cohesion and nascent nation that Mandela brought us. Rather, give us an inclusive vision for the country for this is what he stood for.

Will Mandela’s passing serve as the catalyst for the revival of our once hoped-for rainbow nation? It might. We may not mimic the success of Asia’s economies, but with assiduous leadership and our tenacious people we can embrace Mandela’s legacy and, as a small African country with big ambitions, work toward an inclusive future.

In his own words, as cited by the Nelson Mandela Foundation:

“What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead.” — Nelson Mandela

Dr. Martyn Davies is the CEO of Frontier Advisory and a Senior Fellow at The MasterCard Center for Inclusive Growth.

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