Last week, newspapers around the world buzzed with news of the hospitalization of Nelson Mandela, a man whose face is one of the most recognizable in the world and whose personality has ascended to the stature of rare living legend. The man has been such a vital, ennobling feature of our world that some of us have come to regard him as imperishable. His bouts of sickness in recent times remind us that, like all mortals, he’s on loan to the world; but also that our world has been so generously enriched by his presence – and that our lives are bound to be impoverished in significant ways whenever he ceases to be here.
These ruminations led me to a recollection of a telling encounter from close to twenty years ago.
In 1993, with South Africa on the cusp of transition to a post-apartheid society, I had an instructive discussion with a Nigerian public official. The man, a permanent secretary with a Nigerian state government, was in the U.S. on some official assignment. His U.S. host, a professor who also hails from the same state, invited me to join them at lunch. As might be expected, our conversation see-sawed, skipping from one topic to another. In time, we lighted on South Africa, our attention fixed on that country’s pregnant state. South Africa was then in an interregnum, an in-between period, its old racist order on the way out, and a new ethos – in which the dignity of all its citizens was going to be respected – about to emerge.
As we talked, I expressed admiration for Nelson Mandela, a man whose suffering has since become something of a synecdoche for the grim privations experienced by black South Africans and other non-whites during the hellish days of apartheid. Mandela had spent twenty-seven years in prison, stretches of incarceration served with little or no contact with his family.
On a few occasions during Mandela’s incarceration, the white minority regime in Pretoria had tried to fend off international condemnation by offering their prisoner a devil’s bargain. They were prepared to release Mandela from jail – but only if he consented to renounce the struggle against apartheid. Each time the offer was made, the man South Africans fondly call Madiba dismissed it. He served notice that he would either live like a free man – with all germane rights and privileges – or stay jailed. He reckoned that the ostensible deal was an invitation to cooperate in the abridgement of his humanity – and that of his fellows. Less formidable men would have chosen personal comfort over the collective ends of the struggle; Mandela denied himself to advance the cause of a more just South Africa.
That stubborn fealty to principles meant many more years in prison. Another man, indeed many people, would have found it hard to resist a fierce sense of victimization. Not Mandela; there was in his demeanor a striking absence of any trace of bitterness. Far from exhibiting resentment towards his erstwhile tormentors, he was anxious, above all, to render himself a balm over his troubled nation’s open wound of racial hate.
As the presidential candidate of the African National Congress, Mandela was, by most calculations, a shoo-in. In both his carriage and speeches, he radiated confidence but never demonstrated that fascination with self-aggrandizement that’s the trademark of many other disastrous African leaders. He even made it clear that his political participation was an extension of the theme of sacrifice – for the greater good – that had marked his past.
As I set out the grounds for my admiration of a remarkable man, I detected a puzzling expression on the face of the visiting “prominent” Nigerian. It appeared to me – to us all – that he was eager to offer some intervention on the subject. So I paused, curious to hear his take.
“Do you know that the white rulers would have been happy to give Mandela $10 or even $20 million if he agreed to go into exile?” the man asked.
“If I were him, I would have taken the money,” the visiting permanent secretary deadpanned.
“What would be the point?” I asked, scandalized by the man’s feckless, facile posture.
My interlocutor gave me a quizzical look. “So, the man likes to suffer?” he asked.
“But he was part of a struggle to achieve equality for all South Africans,” I reminded the man. “You don’t just abandon such a cause, pick up some millions, and disappear.”
“What I know is that there’s no way I’m going to spend twenty-seven years in jail I’ll take the money, go abroad, and enjoy my life.”
“There are many ways of enjoying life,” I proposed. “Did you not see how South Africans came out in their millions to hail Mandela as a hero the day he left prison? And how the rest of the world saluted the man’s courage and commitment? Do you think there’s any enjoyment more powerful than to be so universally adored and admired, even by your former jailers?”
The man shook his head vigorously, unimpressed. “I don’t care for that.”
That exchange resonated as I meditated on Mandela’s stature, the palpable concern and solicitude, in South Africa and around the world, over his failing health, and the reverence he so easily commands. When Mandela eventually passes, count on global expressions of grief and loss. By contrast, the death of former Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha instigated a carnival-like celebration. And yet, Abacha was many times wealthier than Mandela – and with no means of legitimately accounting for the former’s fortunes.
It was not lost on me that Mandela has been consistently treated in South African hospitals. President Zuma has not talked about flying him to a Saudi or UK medical facility. Yet, for any Nigerian big man – whether local government chairman, commissioner, governor or president (as well as their families) – to be treated in a Nigerian hospital is nothing short of a curse. To be a Nigerian “stakeholder” is to take for granted the right to receive medical care abroad, to drink imported water, to have your home powered by imported generators, to have your children educated abroad, to own swanky mansions in Europe, North America, or the UK – with money looted from Nigeria.
Nobody ever heard Mandela once style himself “founder of a new South Africa,” even though he could very well make a persuasive case that the title fits. We’ve never heard him beat his chest and say, “I’m Mr. Transformational Leader.” Yet, there’s no question that he served as a tool of transformation at a critical juncture in his country’s recent history. Nobody doubted that he received his people’s mandate in a credible election, free of hanky-panky. He could have easily sailed into a second term, but he gracefully withdrew, asking younger elements within his party to rise to the challenge of leadership.
Yes, Mandela is a millionaire, but only because he received a well deserved hefty advance on an autobiography he wrote after he left office – and earned handsome fees on the lecture circuit. There’s nothing hidden about the man’s assets. He did not have millions of dollars each month to pocket in the name of security vote. He did not award phony contracts, only to split the funds with a coterie of contractors. Legitimately wealthy, his life and work are not – will never be – defined by material wealth, but by the quality of his moral example and the undeniable positive impact of his political leadership. The majority of Nigerian governors and presidents, past and present, military and “elected,” can’t provide a coherent explanation of the source of their stupendous wealth. They
can’t openly declare their assets – if their life depended on it.
If Nigeria’s office holders wish to discover the difference between a compassionate, visionary and towering leader and a vicious, greed-driven, inept ruler, they need look no further than at Mandela. If they want to be acquainted with how a true leader speaks and acts as well as shapes his time and space, they should again look to Mandela’s example.
As president, Mandela was far from a perfect leader; some critics charge that he failed to drive a harder bargain to attain economic empowerment for the long-oppressed black majority. Still, he did not set out, as most Nigerian “leaders” do, to destroy his nation for the sake of personal benefit. And that partly accounts for his claim to his people’s, and our, enduring admiration.
Here’s a man – Mandela, that is – who, even at his feeblest moments, nevertheless stimulates us with visions of his moral greatness, his stellar legacy, his imperishability.