Thursday, January 2, 2014

MANDELA, THE TOUGH CHOICES THAT MAKE A LEADER

By the time you read this it may very well be that former South African leader, Nelson Mandela has been finally laid to rest.

The grief of the last week was tempered by the many months he has been on the brink of giving up the ghost, but this did not take away from the outpouring of emotion on his death. The largest congregation of leaders at a funeral the world has ever seen only served to cement the high regard in which many held the former freedom fighter.

His place in history was won the hard way -- standing up to the apartheid regime, one of the most brutal regimes the world has ever seen and coming out the other side victorious.

His stature driven by a western media machine, as if relieved that Mandela did not bow to popular sentiment and seek revenge on his former oppressors, will ensure that his legacy will remain largely unsullied.

Serving as a worrying undercurrent during the last week's ceremonies was the disturbing question that now that the conscience of the nation has passed on what will happen to the revolution he helped birth.

In the teeming townships as the everyday man continues to grapple with the poverty, he can't help but feel --much like most of post independence Africa, that the benefits of the hard fought political freedom have not been seen in his economic circumstance.

The doubts increase with the emergence of a new class of super rich blacks who have leveraged a better education or their connectedness to the high ups in the ruling African National Congress (ANC), to pad their nests.

To their credit the ANC has built millions of housing units, increased school enrollment for blacks, laid hundreds of road into the countryside and provided health services where the were none to speak of. It is testament to the diabolical effectiveness of the apartheid regime's racist policies that the inequalities in the rainbow nation persist 20 years after Mandela became president.

There are many examples of Mandela's leadership in steering the country as president and as the conscience of the nation in later years. 

But negotiating with the Racist regime to allow its backers maintain their property rights -- property which had its roots in illegal acquisitions, violent confiscations and outright treachery and to go a step further to prevail on his supporters to take the deal, even when having endured decades of oppression and reduced to second class citizens in their own land, their instincts were to drive the oppressors into the sea or at the bare minimum give them a taste of their own medicine, is what all those standing ovations for Madiba have been about.

They say what is popular is not always right and what is right is not always popular.

Mandela, as a leader was looking beyond the symbolism of winning political power, to the pressing questions of how to improve his people's welfare.

He needed his former adversary's capital, but more importantly the expertise to keep generating more and more wealth, if he was to help alleviate poverty among his people. Hence the pact with the "devil".

What choice did he have?

Well he could have succumbed to the groundswell of emotion at the time and look to win some cheap political points by trying some crude redistribution of wealth -- wealth which black South Africa have a historical right to, become wildly popular for a time before the economy came falling around his ears.

He would not have been the first or the only one to be seduced by the pull of cheap popularity, Idi Amin and Robert Mugabe leap to mind.

By choosing the former rather than last remedy South Africa has a chance to eradicate poverty in our lifetime.

Of course this story may not end happily ever after. 

The political class in South Africa seem intent on perpetuating the stereotype of Africans as corrupt, squandering and blundering buffoons, which could have far reaching ramifications for the war on poverty.

South Africa whose income inequalities measure worse than Uganda's should be concerned, a failure to get a grip on it will lead to social strife, strangling the economy and hurting any efforts to improve the collective lot.

Mandela took the rainbow nation as far as he could. He leaves behind almost insurmountable challenges that will require great feats of leadership, more than might. Arguably his legacy and place in history have been cemented, but a Zimbabwe-like collapse may threaten even that.

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