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Mandela — the traits that made him great

Grace VIRTUE

Tuesday, December 10, 2013    

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ONE approach to problem-solving is to examine a dilemma through the eyes of those we consider wise -- those of great moral courage who have confronted significant challenges and emerged as winners.

With the passing of Nelson Mandela, December 5, and our professed reverence for him and his ideas, I thought about some of the issues facing us and how our positions might stack up against some of his basic beliefs and practices.

What, for example, would he say about the impending logistics hub — the latest silver bullet in the quest for 'development' which could involve, and unnecessarily so, the destruction of a part of our natural heritage so pristine, so irreplaceable and so intrinsically valuable, that we ourselves declared them protected?

How would he handle our escalating conflict with Trinidad and Tobago? Would he take the low road and respond in kind to the worse of what is coming out of our sister island?

And, what are the special qualities that he cultivated that made him such a revered leader and which our leaders need to emulate if they are to make a difference and not just be bench warmers in national life?

Mandela's body will be taken to Qunu, in South Africa's Eastern Cape to be laid to rest, on December 15, 95 years after he was born in nearby Mvezo.

It was his wish that he be laid to rest there among the green hills of this unspoilt village, where he herded cattle and sheep as a boy, where he said he spent his happiest years, where he lived in retirement, and in keeping with his belief that a person should be buried near to where he/she was born.

In 1997, Mandela co-founded the conservation group, Peace Parks Foundations: "If we do not do something to prevent it, Africa's animals and the places in which they live will be lost to our world and her children forever. Before it is too late, we need...to lay the foundation that will preserve this precious legacy long after we are gone," he said.

World Wildlife Fund President Carter Roberts described Mandela as a fierce proponent of conserving biodiversity for the benefit of the people and the planet, who believed in the power of conservation to empower people while also protecting wildlife and habitats.

Mandela was also an ardent proponent of the African concept of human brotherhood or Ubuntu -- mutual responsibility and compassion. Fellow South African, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, explains Ubuntu as "gentleness, compassion, hospitality, openness to others, vulnerability, to be available to others, and to know that we are bound up with them in the bundle of life."

Mandela regarded ubuntu as part of his heritage and as a "combination of instinct and deliberate planning".

"People are human beings produced by the society in which they live," he said. "You encourage people by seeing the good in them."

As a leader, Mandela possessed a combination of highly desirable and easily discernible traits. From the myriad commentaries and biographies, online and on television and radio, I have extracted 10 of the most prominent.

Humility: From all accounts, Mandela had, at most, a modest view of his own importance. Talk show host Oprah Winfrey recalls, for example, his question when he arrived at her studio for a show she had planned about him: "So, Oprah, what is this show about today?"

Courage: Among the iconic images now in circulation, my favourite is that of Mandela, along with some of his ANC colleagues, holding his fist high through the windows of the prison bus transporting him to Robben Island to serve what should have been a life sentence. Resolute in the face of danger and unfettered by fear, he was always free to be great.

Intelligence: Superiority of mind, a capacity for thought and reason, and to acquire and apply knowledge, were obvious Mandela traits. People were drawn to him and his ideas because of his wisdom and his ability to offer insight and analysis that make perfect sense.

Dignity: His stately bearing and easy grace set him a part. It was not possible to ignore his self-assuredness and commanding presence.

Forgiving: Unfairly imprisoned in the prime of his life for 27 years, he emerged without bitterness and placed forgiveness as a central part of moving forward for himself and his country. Former United States President Bill Clinton, on CBS radio, December 6, said he asked Madiba outright about this: "It was good politics to put your jailers in your inauguration and your government," Clinton asked. "But didn't you hate them even just a little?"

"Briefly," Mandela replied. "But if I continued to hate them, they would have still had me."

Purposeful: From the time he joined the ANC, to the end of his presidency, a span of more than a half-century, Mandela was focused on one thing only: ending the brutal apartheid system and setting his country on a path to freedom, equality and justice. At the time of his sentencing in 1964, he declared this a cause for which he was prepared to die.

Authentic: He was simple and unpretentious. He rose to greatness, not because he craved it, but because he lived up to the principles he believed in.

Resilient: The road from Robben Island to the presidency of South Africa is a testament to Mandela's ability to emerge unscathed from unimaginable hardship.

Attentive: He was a keen listener and he was watchful and observant. The ability to listen is often cited as one of the most desirable qualities of a great leader.

Transformational: To transform means to change in a significant and positive way. Mandela led the overturning of an oppressive racist system and set South Africa on the path to a free society. His ability to be transformational rest upon all his other traits.

Ultimately, it matters not how often we quote Madiba or declare our undying admiration if the principles he held are lost on us. Our greatest tribute to humanity's finest, the elder of our global village, this man "who took history by the arm and bent the moral arc toward justice," is to emulate those traits that made him great.

gvirtue@usa.net

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