Acton Commentary

Mandela’s Example

Let freedom reign. The sun never set on so glorious a human achievement.

-- Nelson Mandela upon being sworn in as President of South Africa in 1994.

CAPE TOWN -- Described in his home country as the greatest South African that ever lived, Nelson Mandela was a man whose dedication to individual dignity and freedom was a model for a country’s people who had for so long been divided.

At an interfaith service at the Cape Town City Hall on the day following his Dec. 5 passing, Mandela’s love and steadfast commitment to human dignity was a central theme of leaders from all faiths who gathered with thousands of South Africans to commemorate his legacy and example. Mandela’s personal commitment to freedom was not merely for freedom’s sake alone, as important as it is enshrined in our South African Constitution. He believed that each of us is called to freely use our liberty to create a better society through our everyday actions.

His sincerity never faltered, according to those close to him, despite residual criticism from some quarters with respect to a few allies he worked with in the battle to end apartheid. Mandela sought to match noble intentions with sound economics and governance, guiding South Africa from its struggle for freedom into a democratic dispensation underpinned by the rule of law and liberty, grounded in one of the world’s most admired constitutions.

In engaging with world leaders on his release from 27 years of prison, he stood by the goal of emancipation for which he was prepared to lay down his life. In this context Mandela’s policy measures and leadership were undertaken as a means to realize that goal within a growing and open economy. In this he laid foundations for macro-economic stability in South Africa after a period of great difficulty and economic decline.

Frederik de Klerk and Nelson Mandela shake hands at the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum held in Davos in January 1992.
Frederik de Klerk and Nelson Mandela shake hands at the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum held in Davos in January 1992.

Many countries – South Africa especially – are aware of the visible reality of exclusion from the economy, an exclusion that manifests itself in the inability to enter the market as job seekers or entrepreneurs. It is a sad remnant of the apartheid legacy for South Africans and one that can only be addressed with prudence and leadership, on the back of the foundations that have already been laid. Mandela’s example demonstrates this can be achieved and that South Africans can unite to find solutions and realise the promise of an inclusive South Africa.

Nelson Mandela understood the need to deal with the sometimes harmful effects of globalization, but he also recognized that participation in market exchange was the path to progress for the people of Africa. His balanced approach was made clear in a 1998 address to the World Council of Churches:

Nor can we allow anything to detract from the urgent need to cooperate in order to ensure that our continent avoids the negative consequences of globalization and that it is able to exploit the opportunities of this important global advancement.

That means working together to ensure that the legacy of underdevelopment does not leave Africa on the margins of the world economy.

That means finding ways to deal with the world's highest incidence of AIDS, to advance and entrench democracy, to root out corruption and greed, and to ensure respect for human rights.

It means together finding ways to increase the inward flow of investment, to widen market access, and to remove the burden of external debt which affects Africa more than any other region.

In my personal experience, the great statesman’s commitment to vigorous debate and free speech to these ends were underscored as patron of our African School Debating Championships, a student initiative I was fortunate to be a part of. Annually high school students from across the continent were invited to Johannesburg to debate freely on the key issues facing the continent and the world in the spirit of Mandela’s leadership style. Every individual who met Mandela was inspired to be a better person in every aspect of their lives, from whatever their planned profession down to their role within their families and communities.

Mandela worked off a starting point of human dignity, rising above ideology, while upholding the highest non-negotiable principles of non-racialism and the universal inherent equality of every person. His approach, embedded in a conciliatory spirit, is one of the finest contexts for honest and sincere discussion and debate.

As a true statesman he has united a nation in a common identity that binds South Africans, without a prerequisite of uniformity of opinion, ideology or ethnic affiliation. The need is to embody his values in finding solutions to South Africa’s remaining challenges using a model so many in the world have to love and emulate.

Mandela’s passing has unified the nation and reminded millions of the call to continue his legacy. Not a call simply to mantras, platitudes or ideological rigidity; much more than that, to a sincere examination of ourselves and our relationships at a personal level with each other as South Africans, and in turn to how we each contribute to the furthering of a unified country grounded in the common good.

Garreth Bloor, an Acton University lecturer, is an elected representative of the Cape Town, South Africa, City Council and a member of the Mayoral Committee Executive Management Team.