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Born to rule and crowned in prison

  • 14 July 2022
In recent years there has been much discussion about national leaders and their importance. Russia has been personified in Vladimir Putin, China in Xi Jinping, France in Emmanuel Macron, the United States in Donald Trump, and Great Britain in Boris Johnson. The health of their nations is linked to their distinctive styles of rule. In Australia the change of Government has also focused attention on the qualities good leaders should have and their importance for the nation.

In such conversations leaders of the past are often referred to as a measuring stick for evaluating the present. Australian prime ministers are routinely compared to John Curtin or Robert Menzies. This coming week calls to mind another leader against whom we might measure others. On 18 July is Mandela Day in honour of Nelson Mandela, the first Black President of South Africa.

Mandela had the quality, rare today, of being born to rule. He came from a royal clan and in childhood lived with the family of the Thembu regent. His study in a Methodist school and Black university was designed to prepare him for a future as councillor for the Thembu Kingdom. His background contributed to the self-confidence and sense of his own worth that made him a natural leader. Though they are not essential, and if not tempered by other attributes they can be a potential handicap, these qualities and background form a base on which effective leadership can be built.

In Mandela’s case they were tempered by apparently random experience. A turning point in his life came when his university suspended him for his part in a food boycott. On his return to his guardian’s house he discovered that a marriage had been arranged for him and immediately fled to Johannesburg. He found work as a law clerk, lived in a residence for miners, made friends across races and decided to study law. These years and the lasting friends whom he made changed his life. They included Oliver Tambo, later President of the African National Congress (ANC) and Walter Sisulu with whom he served eighteen years on Robben Island prison. He became involved in the movement for self-determination for Black Africans and helped found the ANC Youth League with a strong activist program. After Daniel Malan came to power in the 1949 election and introduced apartheid regulations Mandela played a leading role in giving the ANC a radical edge.

England prime minister Harold