Madiba Magic or Mandela the Myth? Leadership and Flawed Democracy

2013-12-04 18:00

Our housekeeper once told me that the ANC remains strong at the polls because of the “old man” - Nelson Mandela. “Once he dies”, she assured me, “the ANC will fall apart!” I did not rate her opinion as she was one of the very few Xhosas I knew who actually supported the political opposition – and was obviously far from representative.

But what she said made me think.

Another learned and politically aware friend suggested to me a year or two prior to Mandela’s retirement from public life that he (Mandela) had missed a trick, and done a grave disservice to the nation by remaining silent on the issue of personal ethics and moral leadership. He might, he suggested, have encouraged an ethic of personal sacrifice and an appetite for hard work as contributors to building a new society and a successful nation.

But he had not, and by then that window of opportunity had pretty much closed. That too, made me think.

Mandela had let slip the perfect chance to define a national value set, for as the first elected ANC beneficiaries boarded the already moving gravy train, Mandela – a reputed paragon of virtue and role model - could simply have said “No, this won’t do! Disembark.” I think it likely that the nation would have listened.

He could, for the sake of illustration, have made a very public statement by driving a modest car, openly eschewed luxuries and berated extravagance – although one readily concedes that neither ostentation nor extravagance were his personal hallmarks; he was far more into zany shirts.

But he allowed the trough to open for business and the snouts to go to work. The results are too many to enumerate but two of the most iconic are the obscene wealth gifted to Cyril Ramaphosa (trade union boss turned “businessman”, and now the nation’s vice president) and the Nkandla splurge.

Mandela was obviously a remarkable man in many ways. He was a conciliator of note and is quoted as saying some smart things. Excerpts from some of his speeches can be Googled and he has a strong following of acolytes at home and abroad. He is even credited with saving the nation from civil war and violence - although that is no doubt overstating it.

But, as always, there are two sides to the story.

Many choose to ignore the idiotic things Mandela said over the years and the destructive role he played in legitmising false perceptions. His speeches were often critical of the democratic countries of the west, but praised the remaining communist and Muslim dictatorships of the world at the time, all the while extolling democracy as a South African institution.

He condemned mistakes and controversial policies of the west but declined to publicly condemn the genocides and brutal repression of estwhile communist countries and African nations. As a supposed champion of freedom and democracy and hero of oppressed people everywhere, he nonetheless considered dictatorships like Cuba and Libya (under Gadaffi) to be beacons of freedom and justice – and his friends.

Not content with referring to the West’s impending confrontation with Saddam Hussein as a “holocaust” he argued that contempt had been shown for the United Nations because Kofi Annan (UN Secretary General at the time) was black, and that such things never used to happen when U.N. general secretaries were “white” - palpable nonsense.

That Mandela openly and frequently played the race card is clear, but there are other blemishes on his record too. He gave the orders to shoot IFP protesters at the Shell House massacre in 1994 and supported the ascension of Zuma to high office – a dismal legacy to be sure.

The bottom line is - Mandela was no saint. And he can with justification be blamed for his key role in promoting what R W Johnson defines as “Black Racial Communalism” – a racism that promotes the allocation of resources on the basis of skin colour at the expense of merit. Otherwise put, Mandela did not stand for true democracy: the racial precepts that he promoted - and that grow in intensity within the ANC to this day - run contrary to the principles of democracy and weigh heavily on the material wellbeing of all South Africans as a result.

Indeed that legacy has reached a point where even the official parliamentary opposition feels compelled to abandon liberal principles in order to gain political relevance. This means that a paradigm shift has occurred from true democracy - at least as a stated intent - to a kleptocratic ethnocracy with its power assured for the time being by the cultivated ignorance of a numerically superior electorate.

On the positive side, the prognosis for such a model is not good; it will collapse as impoverishment spreads and its socio-economic consequences take their toll in an uncomfortable and fitful correctional process. Already our economy is slipping through the cracks as we battle with huge budget deficits, crippling unemployment and a currency in free fall.

Hopefully the remaining phases of the decline will not be too violent, but it could almost certainly have been averted, or its effects radically diminished, with appropriate leadership.

Had Mandela shown an ethical compass at that critical time in the young nation’s history things could have been very different, because the impressionable, directionless and repressed masses would have listened to what he had to say. But the chance went a-begging.

In retrospect, to have expected these qualities in addition to his actual achievements was probably too much to expect of one man.

Much is the pity that the leaders to emerge since Mandela have been, to varying degrees dysfunctional, incompetent and/or ethically unsuited to public office. It is as if there was no one good enough to play off the reserve bench.

That tells us everything we need to know about the ANC.

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