Nelson Mandela set standards which his successors have not been able to live up to

South Africa’s first post-apartheid leader went out of way to instill respect for democratic institutions

Related Topics

The failure of most Africa’s post-independence movements has been caused by the moral corruption of the leaders and parties in power. So many leaders have seen themselves not only as above the law, but above the strictures of good, moral behaviour. Nelson Mandela, when he was president of South Africa’s governing African National Congress, was that rare leader who did not allow new-found state power to corrupt him either as a politician or a man.

Mandela believed that through exemplary individual leadership, he would set a new gold standard for African leadership. For Mandela, the moral integrity of a leader was crucial. And this was why he was so respected even by his opponents.

The current South African reality is the opposite of what Mandela strived for. It can be seen in the contrast between the moral authority of a Mandela and the murkiness of a Jacob Zuma, the current ANC and South African President.

Mandela’s conduct early in his political career was by no means exemplary. As one of the leaders of the ANC Youth League in the 1940s and early 1950s, Mandela used to regularly violently disrupt the meetings of opponents. In old age Mandela readily admitted that in his youth he was a bit of show-off, a womanizer, and often impetuous, prone to seek out the limelight.

Although the ANC fought a just war against the apartheid regime, it suffered many moral lapses during the long independence struggle, including sometimes unleashing terrible violence against its own members suspected of not toeing the line. Very soon after his release from 27 years in prison for his opposition to apartheid, Mandela publicly apologised for abuses at the ANC’s prison camps in the 1970s and the 1980s.

Mandela understood that because South Africa emerged from such a violent, authoritarian past it meant that a new democratic political culture after apartheid would have to be carefully nurtured. Furthermore, Mandela understood that since democracy and the new constitution were at the heart of South Africa’s new identity, undermining both could not but undermine the formation of a new South African-ness.

Mandela made a determined effort to inculcate respect for the new democratic constitution, institutions, laws and rules. Even during the 1960s, as a younger revolutionary, he had strong views on the kind of democracy he envisaged. He argued for a parliamentary system, a Bill of Rights, the doctrine of separation of powers, as well as the independence of its judiciary.

This is truly extraordinary as many African independence movements and their leaders viewed – and many still do - democracy in its narrowest sense, sometimes wrongly insisting that democracy means elections only. Others even argue that democracy is not African, is ‘foreign’ and ‘Western’.  On a number of occasions, as president of South Africa, Mandela deferred to the judiciary, to show that even as president, he was accountable to democratic institutions.

Mandela made a determined effort to establish a respect for South Africa’s democratic parliament as a symbol of the new democracy’s representative institutions. He also went out of his way to show respect for the parliamentary opposition, even if they may be insignificant, to inculcate a democratic culture.

When in 1994 he put together his first Cabinet as President of a democratic South Africa, Mandela went out of his way to include members of the defeated National Party, the party of apartheid, and of the ANC’s main black rival, the Zulu nationalist Inkatha Freedom Party. Many ANC supporters strongly disagreed with this approach, wanting loyal party cadres to be appointed instead.

Last year the ANC celebrated its centenary - a time when anti-democratic leaders and groups appear to have a stranglehold on the party. Mandela’s racially inclusive legacy is in danger of being destroyed by narrow tribalistic tendencies. It is not way to treat his legacy.

William Gumede is the editor of No Easy Walk to Freedom, a collection of Nelson Mandela’s writings

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistant - Accounts Payable - St. Albans

£26000 - £28000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistan...

Ashdown Group: Treasury Assistant - Accounts Assistant - London, Old Street

£24000 - £26000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A Gold Ferrari sits outside Chanel on Sloane Street  

Sunday Times Rich List: We are no longer in thrall to very rich people

Terence Blacker
David Cameron was openly emotional at the prospect of Scotland leaving the union before the referendum  

Remember when David Cameron almost cried over Scotland because he loved it so much?

Matthew Norman
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions