Many were either too young or too unborn in the early 1990s. Others have simply forgotten, or they probably choose not to remember the kind of leader that Nelson Mandela was.

As a result, it has been allowed to be fine for uninformed – yet understandably disappointed – young activists to refer to Mandela as a traitor who accepted personal favours yet to be disclosed in order to “give more than he should have, even to sell out” to the erstwhile National Party during the negotiations that led to the founding of South Africa’s democratic era. 

Those who were there with Mandela during those days and who know that he never acted alone, or for himself, and that he was never the autocrat that many portray him to be, have remained quiet, seemingly too afraid to speak out and defend his legacy. They led with Mandela during those days and they occupy leadership and princely positions in the list of South Africa’s political elite – active and retired – but they will still not stand up and defend him. Why?

Mandela was by no means an angel – angels are never found in politics – but he was a lot more principled as a leader and he knew how to lead from the front, setting the tone for others to follow. While he knew how to listen – an important trait in any leader – he was never afraid to say so when he disagreed with positions that went against his humanist values. He told the Americans where to get off when they tried to dictate who South Africa could invite to his inauguration as president. Specifically, they were unhappy with late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, and Cuban leader Fidel Castro being invited, but Mandela is said to have sent them packing, reminding them that this was his inauguration and that the three men had been his friends and those of the decades-long fight to end apartheid. The matter of the three men’s respective political legacies is a matter of a separate discussion, of course. Not here.

Mandela also, reportedly, did the same when the Chinese tried to discourage him from inviting the spiritual leader of Tibet, the Dalai Lama, to South Africa. It is known that not only did he refuse to frustrate the Dalai Lama’s visa application, as some of his successors did to please the Chinese ego, or out of fear, or both, to their unhappiness, he also met him in public and took him on a walk about at the picturesque Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens in Cape Town.  

At home, Mandela famously refused to give in to loud, populist, pressure to have the Springbok emblem dropped on the basis that it was a racist apartheid symbol, or to cancel a planned visit to the late widow of Hendrik Verwoerd, Betsie, with whom he later had tea.

Mandela took these stances not out of foolish stubbornness. He did so because he was a principled leader who understood what it was like to lead a very diverse, fractured, country in which the wounds of past racial oppression and divisions were still fresh.

He understood that for South Africa to heal, the route of “winners take all/zero sum games” would not be the right one to follow. He also had requisite levels of empathy and emotional intelligence to understand what was popularly referred to at the time as “the hopes of South Africa’s black people and the fears of their white countrymen and women”. He understood that it was a fine balance to maintain if the government he led was to succeed in keeping the country together. Anything was possible in those early days.

To the outside world, the Americans, the Chinese and, also famously, the then Nigerian military head of state and despot, Sani Abacha – whom he begged not to go ahead with, then criticised openly for the unnecessary killing of the Ogoni Nine, including Ken SaroWiwa – Mandela stood out as a rare African leader who could not bow to pressure to defend the indefensible. Instead of always insisting on looking at the world only from the perspective of “state interests”, he knew how to fearlessly do so from a values perspective, placing human rights considerations ahead of possible material rewards.

There are countless examples of Mandela taking stances that are consistent with this thinking, even when he famously refused to be freed from prison in the early 1980s on condition that he would return to a quiet life in his native Transkei and leave politics alone.

China has never refused to trade with India, which has provided a home for the Dalai Lama after he was hounded out of his native Tibet in the late 1950s, nor did it punish South Africa after Mandela received the Tibetan leader in South Africa, despite their pressure for him not to do so. The Dalai Lama was never received by any of Mandela’s successors, following Mandela’s departure from office. Thabo Mbeki’s administration allowed him a visa to come and address the World Festival of Sacred Music in Cape Town – at which I introduced the spiritual leader to the large crowd gathered in the gardens – but he never met him in person. The administrations of those who came after Mbeki, former interim president Kgalema Motlanthe and the man from Nkandla, did as they were suspected to have been instructed by China and frustrated his visa applications.

South Africa is still as diverse and multicultural as Mandela left it, though painfully so. Old fractures continue to be tested by race-based policies and political narratives that go largely unchallenged by those entrusted with the responsibility to keep the country together, seemingly more concerned by their material interests and personal longevity in political office than speaking out unambiguously against wrong. But it can still be the country of hope, a ray of light in a world where exemplary, ethical, empathetic, and uniting, leadership has become a rare commodity. It is fractured between the loud voices of, on the one hand, those who have long lost sight of the bigger picture and will defend anything, if it fills their tummies – even if it goes against what must unite South Africans – and, on the other hand, the tired voices that speak out against wrong even when they risk being crowded out by the former. 

In the absence of a strong leader who can stand above the fray and set the tone from a moral high ground – irrespective of any fratricidal ideological fractures within his/her own political home – the country will continue to stray further away from the potential it held at the dawn of its post-apartheid democracy. It will forever be a dream deferred and see many of its children leave to find better, safer lives and to contribute to the development of foreign lands.   
Solly Moeng is the founder and Convenor of Africa Brand Summit. Please follow his LinkedIn newsletter, I’m so Solly, by clicking here: