Africa is celebrating the centenary of the birth of Nelson Mandela this month. Though his birthday was July 18 events have been organised in different places in Africa by various stakeholders and interested parties, at a time when it is quite clear that sustainable development goals will not be achieved in Africa. Not with the current crop of leaders and the prevailing lack of political will.
This is a great shame as Mandela, an African statesman, is celebrated the world over as a custodian of African leadership and heritage. A heritage that advocates for the rights of the less privileged and the oppressed and that sought social transformation.
In Kenya the Nelson Mandela Foundation organised a series of lectures and an exhibition on his legacy at Chuka University and at the National Museums of Kenya. The foundation is concerned with the perpetuation and meaning of the philosophies that the iconic South African freedom fighter and human rights activist spent his lifetime promoting: justice, equality and freedom for the humankind.
OUR MUDSLINGING COMPETITIONS
A lecture by Prof Ciraj Rassool, a historian from the University of the Western Cape, gave a good overview of the values that Mandela lived and fought for. One of the most outstanding aspects of Mandela’s life was not the 27 years he spent in prison, for which he is most famous due to the sacrifice that many would not and will not make, especially politicians. Rather, it was his ability to stoically respect his oppressors.
This would make a good learning point for current African politicians, those from Kenya being in the frontline. The art of disagreeing with people in authority and still being able to retain your dignity as you argue and put forward divergent views that have popular following. Many politicians forget their manners, etiquette and many times what philosophies and ideologies they represent. They get carried away in murky political mudslinging competitions of abuse, disrespect for themselves and others and public tantrums that isolate a majority of those that agree with the ideologies they set out to fight for.
Mandela was able to codify and structure conversations with people who oppressed him and others. He had the mental tenacity to think about his relationship with the leaders of the oppressive apartheid regime and his jailers, without wallowing in bitterness. He was able to apply the law and anchor it in institutions in a way that sought justice for the oppressed not vengeance.
Kenyans have something to learn from these qualities. Whereas the population is horrified by the obscenity of corruption, in which individuals are stealing billions of shillings to the detriment of basic rights to health, water, sanitation, housing and a good education for Kenyan children, we are unable to structure this energy into transformative results.
The incredulity towards corruption in Kenya is, for example, so unstructured that Kenyans resort to making jokes about their oppressors on social media. We as a society have been unable to structure our grievances as regular and consistent pressure for the government to ensure that justice is done and the stolen funds are returned to the taxpayer. Sadly the pressure exerted by the public is rarely sustained and is often marred by an admiration for the opulence that stolen money provides.
This is in direct contradiction to the other outstanding Mandela attribute – his humility and modesty. Mandela apparently often referred to himself as a servant of the people and insisted that his leadership was a collective embodiment of the courage and determination of the South African people. As a result and with the encouragement of Winnie Mandela, South Africans rallied their support around him and made him a symbol of their hope and resilience.
ROLE MODEL TO EMULATE
Even though he was not a poor man, wanton accumulation of wealth was not part of his leadership and his administration put considerable effort in providing equity and access to basic needs that support human dignity.
The Nelson Mandela Foundation is aware of the contestations between the Mandela family, the government and the African Nation Congress (ANC), the political party that sponsored Mandela’s presidency. It therefore acts as a watchful custodian and a platform for dialogue that keeps alive the values and legacy of Mandela’s life and those of his contemporaries ahead of commerce and politics.
South Africa, just like Kenya, is facing serious challenges on erosion of nationalism and a daily assault on tolerance and reconciliation, driven by corrosion of democratic values and corruption. But leaders can yet turn the boat around.
Mandela’s shoes may be very big to try and fit into, but African leaders cannot claim that they do not have a role model whom they can hope to emulate.