Last week’s footage of a dazed and frail-looking 94-year-old Nelson Mandela surrounded by laughing politicians in his living room was condemned on social media as an undignified public relations stunt.
South African President Jacob Zuma and his cronies were criticized for exploiting the Mandela brand as they gear up for the upcoming election. “Mandela survived 27 years in prison only to become a prisoner of the ANC marketing machine,” said one South African on Twitter.
President Zuma insists this was a sincere effort to show the world that the ailing leader is still alive.
Clearly, Mandela’s health is deteriorating. He’s been hospitalized three times in the past four months for a recurring lung infection. Each time, we hold our collective breath as we continue to reflect on his life story.
It was 1964 when Mandela disembarked on infamous Robben Island where he would spend 18 of his 27 years behind bars. Perhaps as a warning to all those that now seek to exploit his name, Mandala wrote in his autobiography that “Prison and the authorities conspire to rob each man of his dignity. In and of itself, that assured that I would survive, for any man or institution that tries to rob me of my dignity will lose because I will not part with it at any price or under any pressure.”
When Mandela got off the boat, he refused to jog to the prison gate as was expected. A prison guard warned him that unless he obeyed immediately, he would be killed and his family would never know about it. He continued to walk.
Minutes later, Mandela courageously stood his ground when a prison officer he’d dared to question moved to hit him. “If you so much as lay a hand on me, I will take you to the highest court in the land, and when I finish with you, you will be as poor as a church mouse,” Mandela warned. The officer stared in astonishment and backed off.
It was while behind bars that Mandela learned his most valuable lessons in leadership. As he himself has acknowledged, prison was the crucible that shaped his character. He went in an angry, immature man convinced that the only way to free his people was through guerrilla warfare. Yet he learned that revenge through violence brought only fleeting satisfaction. By studying his jailers, Mandela discovered he had far more in common with his white countrymen then he thought. In 1990, he came out of prison with the wisdom that forgiveness, compassion, and respect were the most powerful weapons in his arsenal.
The amazing thing is, Mandela didn’t just profess these lofty ideals – he embodied them, leading by quiet example even in the most commonplace of circumstances. Rutgers Professor Ron Quincy witnessed Mandela’s leadership skills in action while spending time at Mandela’s side as the executive director of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change.
In 1993, the King Center undertook a project working with a group of American students and their South African counterparts to help train 50,000 South Africans in the upcoming election process.
“We hosted Nelson Mandela at the King Center in Atlanta as part of this effort and then I had the privilege of flying back with him to Johannesburg,” recalled Quincy.
At one point during the 18-hour South African Airways flight, Mandela and Quincy were conversing in the aisle when a male flight attendant demanded that Mandela sit down so dinner could be served.
“I was shocked. The white male attendant shouted at Mandela in a loud, rude, and disrespectful manner. I was hardly able to restrain my own anger because I’m a part of this humiliation,” recalled Quincy, who decided to hold his tongue, opening the door for a powerful lesson in leadership.
“Mandela then turns and points to me and says, ‘Actually sir, I’m with him,’ shifting the blame to me as if I was the culprit, the important American. He said it jokingly in a mischievous way, grinning with a wink of the eye, completely disarming the situation and returning to his seat.”
Quincy watched as this man of enormous international stature chose to sit down quietly.
Mandela later told Quincy that when he was active in the African National Congress as a young man, “I learned that the leaders who last are those who understand that every battle is not the end of the war. That little incident was not the war. It was not even important, absolutely of no consequence.”
Mandela cautioned Quincy to “never take your condition so seriously that it impedes you from accomplishing your personal mission, which, in my case, is a free democratic election in South Africa.”
Less than a year later, Nelson Mandela became South Africa’s first democratically elected black president, his landslide victory a glowing testament to his courage and perseverance.
Effective leaders display the same brand of confident humility, dignity and courage under pressure that Mandela exemplifies. They demonstrate a relentless focus on executing their mission, refusing to be distracted by the petty jealousies, insecurities, and prejudices of those around them.
What last week’s public relations stunt demonstrated is that despite his obvious fragility and old age, politicians still want to bask in the radiant glow of Nelson Mandela’s character. If only his powerful dignity could seep into their souls.