Nelson Mandela — A Leader for His Time


Late last year, the world paid tribute to the remarkable life of Nelson Mandela. Some said there had been nothing like it since the death of Winston Churchill. Such would be appropriate since any short list of great leaders of the last century would have to include both names. One commentator said that when notable public figures die, it is common to say that we must wait for history to write their legacies, but not so with Mandela. His legacy is known. His place in history is secure and gigantic.

Leaders who change the course of history are not only driven by a moral vision; they understand that such change can never be achieved in one or many lifetimes.

Nelson Mandela was a likely leader and an unlikely leader. On the one hand, he came from a royal heritage within his tribe, was intellectually and physically strong, and was educated. On the other hand, because of the color of his skin, he had few opportunities within South Africa under apartheid, a system of political oppression of non-whites considered by many to have been even more pervasive and violent than its counterpart in the United States. In addition, he spent twenty-seven years of his life as a prisoner of the government, during the time when most great leaders are bolstering their credentials, experience, credibility, and connections.

It was as if those years prepared him for leadership in ways he could not have imagined at the time. He drew from all the resources he brought with him to prison not only to survive but to grow. He kept a self-confidence that came from his royal heritage. He drew from his education in mission schools. He kept hope by knowing or learning that the cause of justice in his country had to go beyond freedom for any one person or group. The magnanimous Mandela was hewn in the midst of certain anger and resentment that could have crushed him and his spirit. Bishop Desmond Tutu speaks of a “transformation” that took place in Mandela during the prison years. While suffering can make someone bitter and hard, Tutu said imprisonment toughened Mandela but in a particular way. Adversity made him strong but paradoxically more compassionate and gentle. (Interview by John Carlin, PBS Frontline)

Mandela managed a feat exceedingly difficult for anyone. He maintained hope while not winning. This hope and his ability to stay focused on the goal of justice while continuing to learn and grow made him just the leader needed for his nation and his time. He was ever mindful of his failings and imperfections and never claimed to be more righteous than others. However, he managed to set a standard of spirit and actions that will serve as a rarely achieved but always present model of a nation at its best.

In the 1990s, the world watched with admiration and celebration as a racially inclusive government replaced the oppressive system of apartheid in South Africa. The election of Nelson Mandela as president, following his many years of imprisonment, marked the beginning of a new era. Rather than seeing his election as the reward to be enjoyed and savored to the fullest extent, Mandela knew that as monumental as his election was, it was only one step that had to be followed by many more. He did not stop when victory was declared. Rather, he celebrated and then took up the multitude of new challenges.

Great leaders are driven by a moral vision. Mandela’s moral vision had many sources but surely the influences of mission schools and other Christians contributed much. Peter Storey first met Nelson Mandela fifty years ago when Storey was chaplain at the prison where Mandela was held. Storey tells how hard it was to conduct worship since the prisoners were not allowed to gather but had to remain in their cells. Preaching was particularly challenging since Storey had to walk along the cells. Developing a sense of group worship was difficult. However, singing was another matter since virtually all knew the hymns from their mission school experience. Their vigorous singing, said Storey, “echoed powerfully through the hallways, their melodies often taken up by prisoners in other blocks.” (Christian Century, January 8, 2014)

Leaders who change the course of history are not only driven by a moral vision; they understand that such change can never be achieved in one or many lifetimes. Given the persistent gap between God’s will for the world and current circumstances, a leader’s journey never ends. Mandela put it well in his autobiography, “I have walked that long road to freedom. … But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. … I can rest only for a moment … for my long walk is not yet ended.” (Long Walk to Freedom, Little, Brown & Co., 1994, 544)

The Leadership Qualities of Nelson Mandela

Magnanimity. “It was during those long and lonely (prison) years that my hunger for the freedom of my own people became a hunger for the freedom of all people, white and black. … When I walked out of prison, that was my mission, to liberate the oppressed and the oppressor both. … For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”
Long Walk to Freedom, 544

Grand Gestures. “(The 1995 Rugby World Cup) was a defining moment in the life of our country. He has a knack of doing just the right thing and being able to carry it off with aplomb. It was just the right thing. This sport being so white and really so Afrikaner, and with everybody baying for the Springbok emblem to be destroyed, and that he should come out wearing a Springbok jersey. It was an electric moment. It’s not anything that you can contrive. It was quite amazing how many of those present were white, mainly Afrikaner, who had known this man to be a terrorist, that the government had done one of the stupidest things to have released him, and to have them yelling, ‘Nelson, Nelson, Nelson.’ Quite unbelievable. It had the effect of just turning round our country.”
— Bishop Desmond Tutu interview by John Carlin, PBS Frontline

Grace. “Even in the grimmest times in prison, when my comrades and I were pushed to our limits, I would see a glimmer of humanity in one of the guards, perhaps just for a second, but it was enough to reassure me and keep me going. Man’s goodness is a flame that can be hidden but never extinguished.”
Long Walk to Freedom, 542

Vision. “We enter into a covenant that we shall build the society in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall, without any fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity — a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.”
— Inaugural Address, May 10, 1994

Justice. “And so it has come to pass that South Africa today undergoes her rebirth, cleansed of a horrible past, matured from a tentative beginning, and reaching out to the future with confidence. Our pledge is: Never and never again shall the laws of our land rend our people apart or legalize their oppression and repression.”
— Comments upon approval of new South Africa Constitution, New York Times, May 9, 1996

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About Author

Dr. Lovett H. Weems, Jr.

Lovett H. Weems Jr. is senior consultant at the Lewis Center for Church Leadership, distinguished professor of church leadership emeritus at Wesley Theological Seminary, and author of several books on leadership.