This morning, an estimated 80,000 people, including more than 90 heads of state, will crowd FNB Stadium in Johannesburg for a memorial service in honor of Nelson Mandela, whose influence extended far beyond the borders of South Africa. He dedicated his life to his country and it has a better future for it. Through political activism, 27 years in jail, and a studied, pragmatic leadership, Mandela accomplished what many thought was impossible: a new democratic South Africa. Getting to that point was no easy feat. Cementing that achievement was even more difficult.
Attempting to reconcile the legacy of decades of white apartheid with newly empowered black activists was an incredibly delicate task. Mandela accomplished it by, in the words of journalist John Carlin, author of Playing the Enemy (about the 1995 Rugby World Cup), “doing what defined his leadership: reconciling generosity with pragmatism, finding common ground between humanity’s higher values and the politician’s aspiration to power.”
Carlin notes the new national anthem of South Africa after Mandela became president. It was a combination of two songs, the “anthem” of the black protest rallies, “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika” (“God Bless Africa”), and the old white “anthem” celebrating the European settlers’ conquest of the region, “Die Stem” (“The Call”). The words, in English, are new. The anthem reflected Mandela’s decision to make a peace offering — a clear message of national unity, of magnanimity, of a future without persecution on any side, and a celebration of South Africa’s diversity.
Carlin calls Mandela “Africa’s Lincoln,” but I would argue that he is Africa’s Washington. It is easy to draw comparisons between America’s Civil War and apartheid; certainly both represented bitter internal divisions and risked worsening them. But we will never know what legacy of lasting unity Abraham Lincoln personally would have achieved had his second term as president not been cut short. We do know what legacy of unity Mandela achieved.
Mandela reached out to all parties as the new nation was being formed, much as Washington wrote letters to members of different religions and sects to encourage them to embrace the new United States. Washington’s legacy was achieved through his understanding that, as John Adams wrote, “Piety, Humanity and Honesty are the best Policy. Blasphemy, Cruelty and Villainy have prevailed and may again. But . . . I find the more of them are employed, the less they succeed.” As Washington wrote to the Quakers after he became president, “Government being, among other purposes, instituted to protect the persons and consciences of men from oppression, it certainly is the duty of rulers, not only to abstain from it themselves, but, according to their stations, to prevent it in others.”
As General Washington during the War for Independence went above and beyond to treat our enemies with humanity, so did President Mandela. Both leaders understood not just the morality inherent in the issues at hand, but also the strategic message they were sending.
Both men understood the importance of relinquishing power voluntarily rather than under force. Indeed, it is clear that Washington and Mandela were both keenly aware of the new experiment they were embarking on. They saw that their every single step along the way would be scrutinized and critiqued and, most important, would set a precedent for the future.
It is not that both were not ambitious men who aspired to power. Certainly, both were. It is that they were leaders who appreciated that with great power comes great responsibility. And it is that they were religious men — albeit very privately so — who would know well the Biblical admonition, “And to whomsoever much is given, of him shall much be required: and to whom they commit much, of him will they ask more.”
Washington turned down absolute power twice. The first time was at the end of the War for Independence, when complete chaos caused many army officers to urge him to seize control and become king. Washington not only refused; he was furious. He was also sorrowful: “I am much at a loss to conceive what part of my conduct could have given encouragement to an address which to me seems big with the greatest mischiefs that can befall my Country.”
The second time was when he voluntarily stepped down as president, despite great encouragement to run for reelection. But Washington was committed to ensuring that a truly elected republican government would flourish after him. He knew that his decisions could reverberate for years to come. So did Mandela. In what was considered an unlikely event, Mandela, too, stepped down as president, despite great encouragement to continue on. In both eras, that decision is unusual. Rulers, whether in the 18th century or today’s developing world, are not known for relinquishing power of their own volition. Knowing when to go is a sign of true leadership.
By the time they came into positions of power, Mandela and Washington both implicitly understood leadership and what it meant, and what it required. Both had vision and saw that the goal was bigger than individual power — was bigger than they were. They saw that they were, in fact, peripheral to the goal and to the greater good, and that is what made them so consequential — what made them such leaders. With beliefs grounded in faith, duty, country, generosity, and honor, these ordinary men rose to the occasion and became extraordinary leaders.
— Jana Novak, who spent more than a decade working in politics, is a freelance writer who has co-authored two books, including Washington’s God.