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Op-Ed: Mandela Centenary Is Timely Reminder of Qualities of True Leadership

By South African Ambassador Mninwa Mahlangu

I first heard of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela in 1973. I was in the equivalent of the ninth grade. At that time resistance to apartheid was being re-established following the imprisonment of Mandela in 1964 and the crackdown on protests.

Students were debating the unjust system of government in South Africa, particularly the education system. It was this system that led to the Soweto uprising of 1976, a series of demonstrations and protests led by black school children. They were met with fierce police brutality. The number of protesters killed by police is usually given as 176, but estimates of up to 700 have been made.

It is within the context of the Soweto uprising and the intensification of the people’s struggle against apartheid that I began to greatly appreciate struggle heroes such as Nelson Mandela.

He played an indefatigable role as architect of the South African nation. His life of selfless service averted a slide into civil war, culminating instead in our country’s peaceful transition to democracy. We take this for granted now, but his triumphant release remains at the center of our story.

South African Ambassador Mninwa Mahlangu says that former South African President Nelson Mandela’s “selfless service averted a slide into civil war, culminating instead in our country’s peaceful transition to democracy.” (Photo: Embassy of South Africa)

Mandela’s Personal Influence
What inspired me most is that Mandela’s imprisonment for 27 years damaged his physical health, but didn’t break his spirit. After his release he was praised for not showing resentment toward his oppressors.

I’m also inspired by Mandela’s principled pragmatism, optimism and balanced approach to complex problems and his ability to channel moral indignation into productive dialogue.

Enduring Legacy
Mandela continued the fight for the world’s most vulnerable people until the very end of his life. Indeed, the Mandela legacy endures through an intriguing combination of the inspirational and the practical.

Perhaps the stand-out characteristic of Mandela, also known by his clan name, Madiba, was his challenge to be the change we want to see. In marking the 100-year anniversary of his birth this month, we have an opportunity renew personal commitments to being instruments of change.

Madiba was a humanist regarded by the international community as a world leader advocating for unity and tolerance. He never wavered in his devotion to democracy, equality and learning. Despite terrible provocation, he never answered racism with racism. His life is an inspiration to all who struggle against oppression and deprivation.

Nelson Mandela, then-deputy president of the African National Congress of South Africa, raises his fist in the air while addressing the Special Committee Against Apartheid in the U.N. General Assembly Hall in June 1990. (Photo: UN / Pernaca Sudhakaran)

Favorite Mandela Stories
The standout Mandela story for me is his statement at the opening of his defense at his treason trial on April 20, 1964. These words capture not only his principles but his resolute commitment: “During my lifetime, I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

And then, when Mandela was released from prison, he was not vengeful. He later said: “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”

Talking to Today’s Youth
Mandela’s life is a testimony for young people about what it means to be a good leader who unreservedly serves his country and people. He has become to young people a symbol of what one can achieve with true dedication to a moral and just cause.

Young people should be inspired by the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela. He freed both white and black from the shackles of their past and led them toward a hopeful, better and united future.

Mandela in the Decades Ahead
I would hope for a world that lives up to the values and principles that Nelson Mandela stood for. A key principle is laid out in Mandela’s later words: “As the years progress, one increasingly realizes the importance of friendship and human solidarity. And if a 90-year-old may offer some unsolicited advice on this occasion, it would be that you, irrespective of your age, should place human solidarity, the concern for the other, at the center of the values by which you live.”

A kinder world where human solidarity is at the center of our existence would be a fitting tribute to the legacy of our beloved Madiba.


Mninwa Mahlangu is ambassador of South Africa to the United States.



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