From the staff

Column: Mandela as a leadership measuring stick

dbracken@newsobserver.comDecember 13, 2013 

When Nelson Mandela died last week, I immediately thought of how his name had become shorthand for a kind of political leadership that today is in short supply.

Whenever some region or country starts imploding, a foreign affairs columnist will inevitably say that what the situation needs is a Nelson Mandela figure to emerge.

Sixteen years ago, I got to see firsthand the power of Mandela’s leadership, and to this day I’m struck by how much he transcended traditional politics.

I was a 23-year-old working as a volunteer sports teacher in a township outside Cape Town when Mandala visited our program. The year was 1997 – three years after Mandela was named the first black leader of South Africa – and the country was just opening up to the rest of the world after years of isolation.

Township residents lined up for miles to meet Mandela, and he waited patiently to shake everyone’s hand. The scene resembled less a political rally and more something you’d see for a spiritual or religious leader.

By that point, I’d been working in the townships long enough to know just how remarkable Mandela’s achievements were.

A jarring transition

My program taught physical education and ran sports clinics in the townships outside Cape Town. Each morning, I would leave our house in a Cape Town suburb, pile into a van with my fellow Dutch volunteers, and head to Khayelitsha, a sprawling township on the dusty Cape Flats that stood between the airport and the city center.

The change from Cape Town – one of the most beautiful cities in the world, and one where blacks were not allowed to live under apartheid – to Khayelitsha was jarring, a short commute from the First World to the Third World.

Once dropped off at my school, I would usually be the only white (all my students called me Mr. David or umlungu, the Zulu word for white person) for miles as I took classes out to play on makeshift ball fields.

Working every day in the townships was a window into the insidiousness of apartheid. The system had stripped generations of South Africans of opportunities, prevented them from developing skills to earn a living and left their communities utterly devoid of investment and overwhelmed by poverty and crime.

Still, what I remember most about my days in Khayelitsha is how welcoming and generous the residents were toward me. Race hovered over everything in South Africa, but I was treated with all the dignity and respect that they themselves were denied under apartheid.

Mandela’s vision

After my program ended, I hitchhiked around the country, getting rides from mostly white South Africans. During long drives, I would talk to these strangers about their country.

They generally thought I was crazy to be hitchhiking given the level of violence in the country, and I frequently found myself answering questions about what life was like in the townships.

In those days, the fear of the unknown was palpable. But there was general agreement about what was keeping a lid on the situation: The country had been awash in arms ahead of the 1994 transfer of power, and a bloodbath was avoided largely because of the ongoing belief that Mandela could be trusted.

I ultimately spent a little less than a year working and traveling in South Africa, and I don’t pretend that it was enough time to give me any special insight to the country and its people. But I can say that the country I experienced was one that was striving to live up to Mandela’s vision of a New South Africa.

I have never lived in a place more diverse. Mandela embraced and championed that diversity, despite everything that he had endured under white rule, and showed the world that forgiveness can be a sign of strength.

I don’t expect another Mandela to come along during my lifetime, but – for me – he will always be the measuring stick by which all other leaders will be judged.

David Bracken is the business editor at The News & Observer.

Bracken: 919-829-4548; Twitter: @brackendavid

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