Nelson Mandela led a singular life of sacrifice, dignity and political genius that brought about the peaceful end of one of the great evils of modern times. The most important lesson he leaves us with, however, is not about the promise of visionary leadership. Rather, I believe, it is about the potential within each of us individually – men, women, citizens everywhere – to help build just and cohesive societies.
On a continent cursed by the blight of the “big man” leader, Mandela – our one leader deserving of that status – rejected the rule of strongman in favour of a commitment to establishing lasting democratic institutions. At every juncture – when he could have made the struggle, and the ultimate victory, over apartheid about himself – he invested his authority in building a party, a state and a rule of law that was greater than any individual. By stepping down after one term in office, the former president set an example that too few of his peers on the continent have had the courage to follow.
Coming from the most unequal of societies, he understood the corrosive nature of great divisions of wealth and power. And he knew that, for future generations of South Africans, political rights were incomplete without economic rights and access to equal opportunities.
For my generation of Africans, Mandela performed an exceptional service. During our independence struggles a half-century ago, we witnessed the exhilarating possibility of peaceful change, only to have our youthful hopes for self-determination betrayed by decades of misrule and military coups. By ending apartheid peacefully through a relentless commitment to dialogue, reconciliation and power-sharing, as well as an extraordinary partnership with FW de Klerk (the final apartheid president, who became Mandela’s vice-president), Mandela restored our faith in the possibility that we might, with our own hands, shape a future worthy of the immense sacrifice of our liberation movements. That a majority of the continent’s countries are now governed by elected leaders committed to building sustainable pillars of legitimate government is a reflection of how his example continues to inspire. A mischievous sense of humour and an irreverent attitude to power were powerful weapons in a formidable personal armoury. Mandela may have been the world’s best-known and most revered political figure but he was the most gentle, good-humoured and mischievous of icons. As UN secretary-general, I grew used to being greeted by him, with a big smile, as “Boss”. I made a point of speaking to him regularly on the telephone and he remained an indispensable source of wisdom and guidance beyond my day-to-day crisis management.
When it came to facing the reality of HIV/AIDS in Africa, Mandela was an inspiration to all of us who came together to create the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. In the run-up to the catastrophic invasion of Iraq in 2003 – as I sought to secure through peaceful means Iraq’s compliance with the resolutions of the UN Security Council – Mandela’s reassuring voice would steady my resolve to seek unity over division.
In brokering a power-sharing agreement between Burundi’s squabbling parties, his admonition to them – “The way you are behaving makes me feel ashamed to be an African” – carried a force that no militia, however misguided, could ignore. His unique global authority – moral, political and personal – set a very high bar for those who would persist with the folly of conflict.
For all that Mandela’s example has become a common heritage of humanity, he was at his core an African. Completing his long walk to freedom is not, however, about finding “another Mandela” in many of Africa’s states still struggling to combine sound governance and the legitimate exercise of power. This is not the answer, nor is it Mandela’s legacy.
What he taught all of us is that it is for individual African men and women – empowered and educated citizens of their countries and their continent – to take responsibility for their societies and establish accountable institutions that serve all the people and not just the elites, be they economic, political or tribal. And that is why it is so exciting to witness the development of robust civil society across the continent, determined to hold leaders and governments to account.
Almost 20 years ago, Mandela said South Africa had come as far as it had on the path to peace and democracy only because the world had set his country “a moral example which we had dared to follow”. As we mourn his passing and honour his memory, the task for leaders and citizens alike is to dare to follow his example – in every corner of Africa and across the world.
Kofi Annan, the former UN Secretary General
NB: First published in the Financial Times (December 2013). Reproduced here to mark one year of Mandela’s death