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Born to rule and crowned in prison

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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 MacMillan famously saw the greatest challenge to a statesman to be ‘Events, my dear boy, events’; for Mandela they were formative in shaping his leadership and the cause he represented.


'Perhaps the most important thing found in Mandela’s leadership was a sense of mission tested in long years of trial. He was inspired by a large and inclusive vision of society which was worth living and suffering for.' 


One of the most significant qualities of Mandela as a leader lay in his attraction to a range of movements and to the philosophies they embodied, and in his ability to enter them from inside and later to detach himself from them without acrimony. He did not see them as rival ideologies, nor their proponents as enemies, but set them within a vision that disclosed their capacity to divide or unite people for Black self-determination. In his university days he was attracted to Methodist Christianity but does not seem to have incorporated it into his life as an activist. Nor did he repudiate it. Similarly, communist friends interested him in communism. He retained his friends but judged that the emphasis on class rather than race misread the South African reality. He also found the aggressive atheism divisive. He was then attracted to Anton Lembede’s vision of African nationalism that rejected cooperation with other racial groups. He remained Lembede’s friend but later rejected the ideology because it divided rather than unified people in their pursuit of a just South Africa. He was able to reject ideas but see the good in the people who espoused them.

This flexibility came from a firm grasp of what mattered in politics. He developed a large, ethically grounded and inclusive vision of what South Africa should be. This was clear and non-negotiable. It freed him to be flexible in the ways of realising it. In his initial association with the African National Congress, and later in the conflict with state-initiated terror in defence of apartheid, he emphasised conflictive forms of engagement such as strikes and the destruction of economic resources. As transition to majority rule began to seem possible he insisted on the importance of bringing all parties into negotiations.

In this respect his leadership could be described as pragmatic. Pragmatism is often seen as the adaptation of government to short term political gain without larger goals and without ethical control. For Mandela, however, the larger ethical goal shaped the means.

The most significant aspect of Mandela’s leadership was his integrity. It was shown in his endurance under harsh conditions. His eighteen years imprisonment on Robben Island for eighteen years – the equivalent of more than six Australian Federal election campaigns – with their constant petty humiliations, separation from friends and comrades, and inability to contribute actively to his cause tested his commitment and his hope. Yet he responded consistently and courageously by standing up for the other prisoners, refusing to seek favours from the prison authorities or to treat them as enemies, and maintaining his dignity and self-respect. When eventually the Government needed him as a catalyst for minimal change and tried to manipulate him to compromise his principles, he displayed both magnanimity and integrity. He was happy to engage with de Klerk and Chief Buthelezi in amicable conversation while demanding a national government elected by all South Africans. For all its deficiencies the Truth Commission was a symbol of his commitment as political leader to truth as the basis of responsible Government and of reconciliation.

What does this mean for leadership in Australia? It would be unfair to compare Australian political leaders with Nelson Mandela. Nor would most of us want to live in an Australia with the times and the regimes which confronted him in South Africa. The qualities that Mandela showed in his leadership, however, offer material for reflection on what we would like to see in our leaders. 

A natural aptitude for rule might be helpful. Diverse and testing experience, and particularly the experience of failure, were significant in Mandela’s preparation for leadership. They are perhaps even more important in Australia where many politicians’ significant experience is limited to work within political parties. The capacity for friendship and openness to ideas, for seeing the world and people in their complexity and not reducing them to binary categories, too, are important in a leader. But perhaps the most important thing found in Mandela’s leadership was a sense of mission tested in long years of trial. He was inspired by a large and inclusive vision of society which was worth living and suffering for. He was also determined to bring people together in order to realise that vision. His time in prison confirmed and refined his leadership. Although it may be unrealistic to demand that Australian leaders include prison time on their CV of our Australian leaders, the career of Nelson Mandela suggests its potential value.    





Andrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image: Nelson Mandela. (Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Nelson Mandela, Leadership



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Existing comments

A classy accolade about a classy leader from a classy Jesuit! While I enjoyed Andy's wink about a prison term or two that some of our's would deserve, I can think of a few who should have done time but not for the same reasons as Mandela, who went in as an innocent man and emerged eighteen long years later as a hero.

There ain't many like Mandela, except perhaps his hero, Gandhi, robbed of life by a Hindu nationalist, who warrant mentioning in the same breath. In our Catholic universe our heroes cannot quite compare: DeValera perhaps, Kennedy maybe, Julius Nyerere undoubtedly.

At the risk of sounding partisan I'd question whether Menzies qualifies but would nominate Gough for his courage and determination to bring Australia into the modern world in the face of immense opposition and undoubted skulduggery .

On the Catholic side a contribution like Andy's is rare, celebrating the qualities of great leaders whose perceived radicalism and politicism ordinarily disqualifies them from inclusion in the Catholic firmament.

In Britain the only Catholic writer with a vision wide enough to celebrate Mandela and Sisulu was Max Hastings who was widely pilloried for urging +Denis Hurley to condemn apartheid.

Michael Furtado | 15 July 2022  

You could say that, to some extent, Mandela was, in his own particular journey in place and time, replicating the same sort of journey Gandhi and Nehru made together in Pre-Indepence India. What is extremely sad to me is the way both India and South Africa seem to have deteriorated since Independence and Majority rule. To see some countries like Sri Lanka, which was once a prosperous island paradise, reduced, Post-Independence to bankrupt kleptocracies with their population in dire need for both food and medicine is heart-breaking. Talking of leadership, much Western world leadership and intervention ultimately led to disaster, still continuing, in Iraq and Afghanistan. We live in a dysfunctional world. Mandela would have been ashamed of Zuma and Nehru would have totally disowned Modi: a man of completely different political colour to him and his secular pluralist vision of a united India. These are parlous times and I have grave doubts about the calibre of much current world leadership. I think some of these leaders are almost sleepwalking into a major world conflict.

Edward Fido | 20 July 2022  

Leadership? Or an amazingly successful capacity to run with the fox while hunting with the hound?! Nevertheless, he was a great man.

john frawley | 20 July 2022  

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