Global Viewpoint

Prof. Teresa Barnes reflects on Nelson Mandela

12/6/2013  8:00 am

Editor’s note: Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first black president and an icon in the struggle that ended the country’s system of racial apartheid, died Dec. 5. He was 95. Teresa Barnes is a professor of southern African history at Illinois who lived and taught in neighboring Zimbabwe during the decade prior to Mandela’s release from prison in 1990, then spent most of the next two decades in South Africa, through the transition from apartheid and Mandela’s presidency. She spoke with News Bureau social sciences editor Craig Chamberlain.

What made Nelson Mandela such an important symbol in the fight against apartheid? And what qualities do you believe made him so valuable in bringing about the end of that system of racial oppression and the transition to majority rule?

I’m thinking of Mandela’s family and the people of South Africa – they have lost their father, their guiding light and the living voice of their freedom. It is so hard to speak of him, now, in the past tense.

He had so many wonderful gifts: Perhaps most of all he was able to gracefully unite the personal, political and cultural elements of freedom. For example, I was watching the news reports of his life and there’s a picture of him in African traditional dress, wearing a big beaded necklace and a cloth draped over his shoulder. This was taken in the 1960s, when, as an accused prisoner, he shocked the apartheid court by very consciously and defiantly showing by his attire that he was proud of his African heritage. Remember, apartheid taught that African culture was inferior, animalistic and something to be ashamed of.

At the time he was a highly educated lawyer, a member of the African National Congress, a seasoned political strategist, a guerrilla leader, a man who had traveled throughout Africa seeking support for the liberation struggle. He was proud to unite all those activities under the mantle of his heritage. He believed that being African meant humanism. It wasn’t a racial concept for him. It’s also why he was able to treat his jailers and wardens and tormentors with the courtesy and dignity that they refused to show to him.

There’s a chapter in his autobiography, “Long Walk To Freedom,” which I always assign to my classes, called “A Country Childhood.” He writes about how a good leader is one who listens and builds consensus, and how he learned the lessons of African manhood, that a man does not show his pain. So much of his later life demonstrated those two lessons in action over and over again. The ANC’s collective leadership style owes so much to those conceptions of collective leadership. And in his personal life, we see over and over that Mandela remained focused on political goals and refused to allow people to see the great and painful personal toll that he paid to achieve them.

How did he see himself as a leader? And can we overemphasize his role?

Mandela believed that leadership was a collective project. He was surrounded, throughout his long political life, by an extraordinarily gifted set of comrades and colleagues, and they were all embedded in a vibrant tradition of community social organization and direct action, which continues to this day. Of course Mandela struck out on his own, once, when he decided from his Robben Island jail cell, where he spent 27 years, to initiate talks with the apartheid government in the hopes of finding a way out of a looming conflagration.

We can overemphasize his role if we only talk about Mandela as a perfect saint, or as a lone savior. That would be to distort his contribution. He was a great man who dedicated his life to a collective effort and struggle for justice.

How would you assess his record as South Africa’s president (1994-99) and where the country is today as a result?

Mandela’s presidency was a time of extraordinary hope and positive action in South African life. That particular sentiment is long gone now, after many disappointments and tragedies, such as the massacre of Marikana miners last year. I think it is right to say that as president Mandela might not have been a great administrator, and he delegated a lot of the bureaucratic work of governing. But he excelled at using his personal discipline and his charismatic style to disarm people, charm them and get them to think about things in new ways. But he could also be tough and direct in his criticism. Mandela might have chosen to keep quiet sometimes but he did not dissemble or lie.

Mandela and his leadership cohort made an enormous contribution to crafting a positive institutional response to South Africa’s long history of injustice, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and to fostering a social atmosphere where former antagonists could think about how to reconcile their differences. But the ANC government has chosen to take a cautious, gradualist and essentially elite-focused approach to economic redevelopment, and that has clearly contributed to the fact that South Africa remains one of the most unequal societies on the planet.

Lasting reconciliation is not possible if only small bandages are applied to the large, old and festering wounds of apartheid. But Mandela took the important first steps to show that healing was possible. It is up to the current government and the South African people to make that healing a more tangible reality in the long run.

Are there any larger lessons we can take from his life or his leadership?

Our two sons grew up in South Africa. My family treasures two letters written to Mandela as school projects by our oldest son and by another little boy when they were 9 and 10 years old. One says, “Dear Mr. Mandela, I thank you for helping this country to realize that people’s skin color is not what you judge somebody by.” The other letter says, “It is like a father that we love and admire you, for it is like a father that you teach us to be strong and stand firm for what we believe is fair.” For me, the children’s clear understandings of Mandela’s life are the lessons we should all learn.

“Madiba” is a respectful and affectionate traditional name that people use for Mandela in South Africa. And there, people say farewell to someone who has passed away with a phrase in Zulu, a salute, that means, “Go well, go in peace.” So may I join many, many others around in world in saying, “Hamba gatle, Madiba.”

Editor’s note: To contact Teresa Barnes, email tbarnes2@illinois.edu.