“He can win an election, but can he run a country?”
That’s the question posed by a South African newspaper when Nelson Mandela first takes office. Mandela’s response? “It’s a legitimate question.” Meredith Whitmore reviewing the Morgan Freeman Film “Invictus”
After the 1994 election, the incoming authorities were keen to take advantage of their new found freedom and exercise their long denied democratic rights. The film shows the scene where the new sports committee votes unanimously to get rid of the hated, emblematic and legendary rugby team, the Springboks. They had always been associated with and resented as, a symbol of apartheid.
Mandela is told and hurries over to join the meeting. There he is regaled by their chairperson, proudly telling him of their unanimous decision, expecting endorsement and praise for their decisive actions in demonstrating responsive and popular governance in the interests of South African Sport.
But Mandela understands that they as the new South Africans have a bigger goal, – to heal understandably bitter racial divisions and build a new and better country.
Mandela then had three choices.
1. Congratulate them and support the lawful exercising of their responsibilities.
2. Persuade them somehow to compromise, perhaps by allowing the team to continue, but downgrading their status and changing their name.
3. Risk losing the “trust” placed in the committee, by arguing that, instead, they should get behind and build on this internationally admired National Asset and use it as a symbol of positive reform and rebirth.
But this is a natural born leader. He recognises that
1. Would deepen divisions,
2. Would be resented by both sides, so he instinctively opted to address them and convince them that
3. though unpopular, and seeming to overrule them, was in fact as the right option. He put to them that, the reason they had chosen him as their leader, was to in fact to lead and show them the right way to go.
They voted again and, again unanimously, decided to keep the Springboks!
As the film review observed “His years of observing from his prison cell has given him the perspective and wisdom that helped him see that were he to take away what the whites cherish, it would only reinforce the cycle of fear and violence between races. He thus tells them that their enemy is no longer Afrikaners. It is prejudice and an unforgiving spirit”.
To him there was more to leadership than popularity, or populism. Responsibility to your country means ensuring the long term welfare and sustainability of all your people, not necessarily the lazy, short-sighted and easy options of compromise and lowest common denominator.
We expect, but seemingly can’t find at the moment, this leadership in one of the oldest democracies, just when we need it. We need recognition from our political leaders at the National level, that they need to show statesmanship, not the narrow, parochial partisanship of local government.
So perhaps there might be lessons here for us here in the UK, at this critical point in our history, when we are faced with making decisions (or not!), that will profoundly affect us all irreversibly; and particularly threaten the future of our children’s children?
“Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear?”