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Politicians should learn leadership from Mandela

Delirious with power, many leaders in the subcontinent and Middle East choose politics of vendetta over nation-building and reconciliation

Image Credit: REUTERS
Well-wishers hold a giant banner with an image of former South African President Nelson Mandela during a celebration to mark Mandela's 95th birthday at the Angel de la Independencia monument in Mexico City July 18, 2013.
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Men like Nelson Mandela transform the times they live in. In a recent blog, a friend wondered why contemporary politicians couldn’t take a leaf out of the anti-apartheid icon’s book. The immediate provocation was Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s decision to try former president Pervez Musharraf for treason and other crimes.

My friend recalled an anecdote shared by Bill Clinton in a speech at the American University of Dubai. Speaking on leadership qualities, the former US president reminisced about his meeting with Mandela years ago. He had asked the great man why he didn’t pursue the apartheid leaders when he came to power. After all, they had persecuted and imprisoned him for 27 years, not to mention the crimes visited on his people for decades.

Clinton bowled over his young audience with the simple explanation that Mandela offered: “Bill, I was their captive for 27 years, but I did not want to be their captive for the rest of my life by planning revenge against them. I have forgiven them.” Mandela has written on the subject that “as I walked out the door towards the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew that if I did not leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I would still be in prison”.

Here’s someone who had suffered what few men have. “Yet so strong is he in character and spirit that he forgave those who subjected him to solitary confinement. Instead, he worked to heal the wounds of a divided country. And here is our leader, who instead of addressing the daunting challenges facing his nation, chooses to go after his bête noire,” my friend wrote.

Well, few of us are capable of transcending our personal angst. It takes real courage to forgive one’s enemies. As Gandhi said, forgiveness is the attribute of the strong; the weak cannot forgive. Not everyone can turn the other cheek to be hit again. Or pardon one’s mortal enemies on the day when the world is at one’s feet, as Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) did after the conquest of Makkah.

Sharif could have assured himself a permanent place in history by giving his long tormented people a new dawn of hope and reconciliation. He could have been a Mandela in healing a wounded nation, but even if Sharif were to forgive and forget, it’s unlikely the people of Pakistan will.

Musharraf seemed to start well when he deposed Sharif, but in his hubris and hunger for power, he ended up adding to Pakistan’s myriad woes. The country continues to pay — and may for a long time to come — a heavy price for being thrown headlong into America’s all-consuming war and his abuse of institutions. Musharraf now finds himself trapped in his own labyrinth.

Pakistan has a long history of political scores being settled every time there is a change of guard, democratic or otherwise. It has been the same in what was once its other half — Bangladesh — with the two leading ladies, Shaikh Hasina and Khalida Zia, taking turns to rule the country and go after each other. The shoddy ongoing war crimes trial condemning top Jamaat-e-Islami leaders to death is part of the same vendetta politics and has outraged many across the Islamic world.

Power is a strange thing. It’s never enough as far as politicians in the subcontinent are concerned. At 86, Bharatiya Janata Party veteran L.K. Advani still dreams of becoming prime minister of India. And after nearly 10 years in power, the last few being tainted by scam after scam, the 81-year old Prime Minister Manmohan Singh hasn’t entirely given up on a third term. And his job is being eyed by someone who presided over a state massacre of more than 2,000 people.

In the Middle East, so many ‘socialist, republican’ leaders have had to be dragged away after decades of absolute power. In all this, Syria President Bashar Al Assad feels he must kill his people so he can serve them.

How does this compare with Mandela’s legacy? After the end of apartheid, Mandela served as South Africa’s first black president for just one term — from 1994 to 1999. At the height of his power and popularity, he stepped aside and made way for a younger generation. He devoted himself to nation-building and reconciliation. No wonder Mandela inspires such love and admiration across the globe.

If South Asian politicians had paid the price that Mandela did, spending one-third of his life behind bars, they would have deemed it their right to rule till kingdom come. Today, it makes sense that the whole world is praying for Madiba, in an outpouring of love not seen in a long time. This is something you cannot earn with might or money.

US President Barack Obama recently joined millions of Africans in paying tribute to the global icon, emphasising how Mandela had inspired him and other world leaders. During his visit to Robben Island prison, Obama spent some time alone in the cell that once housed his hero. “We’re humbled to stand where men of such courage faced down injustice and refused to yield. The world is grateful for the heroes of Robben Island who remind us that no shackles or cells can match the strength of the human spirit,” Obama wrote in the visitors’ book.

Obama’s words reminded me of lines from Richard Lovelace’s poem — Stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage. But even as these sublime words move you, you cannot help but wonder if Obama has remained faithful to the ideals and values of his hero that transformed a whole continent. From calmly targeting innocent, unsuspecting people in distant lands to presiding over the largest-ever secret spying operation against Americans and friends and allies, Obama has gone where even the neocons feared to tread.

And those who have tried to draw attention to this side of the Land of the Free — whistleblowers like Bradley Manning, Julian Assange and now Edward Snowden — are being hunted like wild animals. Another major letdown of Obama’s presidency has been the total surrender to Israel. How can someone who believes that no cell can cage the human spirit and is moved by the South Africans’ suffering remain indifferent to the predicament of Palestinians?

Thousands of Palestinians, including women and children, have been rotting away for years in Israeli prisons that are worse than Robben Island. But I guess they are no burden on the conscience of politicians accountable to lobbies and special interests. That is the difference between a Mandela and an Obama and between real leaders and men of straw.


Aijaz Zaka Syed is a commentator on the Middle East and South Asian affairs. Follow him on