Regular readers of this page know that I purposely conceptualize art in the broadest possible sense here. Today I pay homage to a man whose greatest masterpieces include ending apartheid, establishing a consensus government in South Africa, and establishing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Nelson Mandela turns ninety today, and his cry for freedom still resounds well beyond the borders of South Africa.
Several mainstream media journalists have already highlighted Mandela’s legacy in birthday pieces. Ann Curry did a predictable interview with pulitzer-winning photojournalist David Turnley this morning. No doubt his new book contains some wonderful images from Mandela’s lengthy incarceration and subsequent rise to the presidency in South Africa, but the Today show piece felt dutiful rather than laudatory of Mandela. Richard Stengel’s brilliant article in Time, on the other hand, offers some not so subtle advice to presidential candidates and other up-and-coming leaders from the annals of Mandela’s wisdom and experience. This is the highest of praise for Mandela’s leadership skills.
Among Mandela’s most inspiring habits lie his tendency toward calm rather than fear and his staunch belief in consensus at all costs (both of which Stengel nuances in his own way). At the end of an American administration that has manipulated the American public through fear, Mandela’s ability to stand firm in the face of fear and violence is well worth emphasizing. This ability relates directly to the notion of consensus. As a politician, Nelson Mandela surrounded himself with friends and rivals alike. He didn’t have to agree with everyone in his cabinet in order to know that their opinions mattered to some sector of the population. Abraham Lincoln did this, too. It’s a policy of leadership that reflects a willingness to face one’s foes, despite the fears they might inspire, in pursuit of the most democratic of principles: consensus. Great artists and performers take huge risks like this too, and it often similarly results in heightened popular opinion. The necessity to use fear to manipulate people reveals insecurity and vulnerability, but the conquest of fear lies at the heart of great leadership.
Today we celebrate a leader who has known great fear. Rather than use it to his political advantage, however, he led his people into direct confrontation with it. It took a truly great leader to affect a country that was so very polarized to face its demons and come to terms with them. As Mandela moves forward, he is asking the wealthiest people in the world to face some of their greatest fears: giving up some of that wealth to those who need it most. He also denounces those who rely on fear to control people and get their own way. Like timeless art, the inspiration of great leadership knows no temporal limitations. Happy birthday, Madiba.
For more information on Nelson Mandela, see NPR’s piece on his pivotal moment, check out an audio history of his life, or take a look at this video montage from NBC news. For more on his current philanthropic and humanitarian work, refer to his foundation website or check out the 46664 project.