As the world mourns Nelson Mandela’s passing, many lessons are being drawn from the life and example of this iconic leader—perhaps the most revered world statesman of our times. Here are some lessons for Nepal, based partly on my personal encounters with him.
Like many others, I had long admired Mandela as the great anti-apartheid hero, a man who was jailed for 27 years but came out as a magnanimous peacemaker and liberator of his country, for which he won the Nobel Peace Prize and became a very popular President of South Africa.
Besides meeting and greeting him when he visited the United Nations or at several international conferences, I had two memorable opportunities to personally interact with him, which inspired me and left a lasting impression. The first occasion was in May 1996 when I led a UNICEF delegation to Pretoria to join Mandela at the launch of South Africa’s National Program of Action for Children. The second occasion was in May 2002 in New York when he visited the United Nations to attend and address the UN General Assembly Special Session on Children.
No special security
When meeting national leaders, particularly in developing countries, it is very common to pass through very tight security screening. Visitors are often put through intrusive security clearance and leaders are always surrounded by armed bodyguards. But to my surprise, when I visited Mandela’s presidential palace in Pretoria, I could hardly see any security guards surrounding him. Both in the open palace garden and in the large conference hall where he greeted and chatted informally with all visitors, including senior officials, diplomats and a fairly large number of children and young people, Mandela was very relaxed and jovial in his trademark batik shirt.
There was no aura of excessive protocol. Everybody addressed him with his affectionate nickname ‘Madiba’—none of the pretentious ‘Your Excellency’, ‘Right Honourable’ or even ‘Mr President’. It seemed obvious that here was a genuinely popular leader with supreme self-confidence as well as deep humility. There were probably some security personnel in civilian clothes guarding him discreetly but it was refreshing to note that genuinely popular civilian leaders do not need to be protected from their own people by over-bearing security detail.
I wish more national leaders would make themselves more readily accessible to their people rather than having visibly paranoid, armed bodyguards hovering over them in all public functions, as we see in Nepal and many other countries.
Priority for children
Enlightened leaders give genuine priority for the well-being of children as the foundation for national development. When I joined Mandela in launching South Africa’s National Program of Action (NPA) for Children, I was happy to note that he was not there just fulfilling a formality like many other leaders do and reading a speech written by someone else. He was deeply knowledgeable about the contents of the NPA and was personally committed to ensure that all of its goals and objectives would be seriously implemented.
A reflection of this genuine commitment was that after his retirement as President, Mandela chose to set up a foundation—the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund—as his favourite charity to which he personally devoted much time and attention. We at UNICEF were happy to collaborate with this foundation. Mandela also provided strong leadership to combating HIV/AIDS, which was ravaging the future of South Africa’s children. His outspoken leadership was in sharp contrast with his successor Thabo Mbeki’s half-hearted commitment and even denial of the perils of this pandemic.
We at UNICEF enlisted Mandela’s strong support for a “Global Movement for Children”. I had the opportunity to personally brief him on the ambitious goals and strategy for creating “A World Fit for Children”, which was adopted by the 2002 UN General Assembly Special Session on Children. Mandela, along with Bill Gates, addressed 71 heads of states and government, and many other dignitaries attending the UN Summit. He inspired and exhorted them—and all of us—to faithfully implement the goals for child survival, protection and development as a matter of national priority and global solidarity.
No ethnic federalism
South Africa’s apartheid regime was trying to promote ethnicity-based states, called the Bantustans, promising various tribes that they would get self-rule and could administer their own autonomous states while the white South African regime controlled and ruled over the richest territory of the country and its international relations.
Mandela strongly opposed the creation of such ethnicity-based Bantustans, preferring instead a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural ‘rainbow’ federation of a prosperous South Africa. The Bantustan model would have perpetuated poverty in the ‘autonomous’ states, making most of them dependent on subsidies from the federal government rather than promoting the whole nation’s prosperity. Nepal runs a similar risk if we opt for federal states that ignore economic viability, potential and complementarity while over-playing ethnic and regional identity.
As we debate the future structure of the Nepali state, we Nepalis would do well to remember Mandela’s example and wisdom. The people of Nepal have given a clear verdict on this issue in the recent Constituent Assembly elections by rejecting both the proponents of identity-centric federalism and opponents of federalism as such.
The agenda of inclusion, equity and social justice remains valid and important in Nepal, as in South Africa and elsewhere, but to equate that with ethnic or identity-based federalism would be a serious mistake.
Another lesson we need to learn from South Africa is to set up a genuinely independent Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) to give Nepali victims of conflict some solace and justice. Instead of creating a flawed TRC that does not meet international standards and is tacitly aimed at granting blanket amnesty, Nepal should emulate Mandela’s model of South Africa’s TRC led by Bishop Desmond Tutu.
Know when to leave
Many political leaders hold on to their posts and perks for too long. Even once popular leaders, like Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and Suharto of Indonesia, hang on to power for too long and eventually become disgraced and discredited. Autocrats and dictators feel that their continuing leadership is indispensable for the security and prosperity of their nations.
Nelson Mandela chose not to run for re-election after his first term as President, although he was very popular and sure to win. The fact that he gave up the Presidency while he was still popular made him even more loved and admired, both nationally and internationally. He commanded great moral authority and was able to do much as a former President, precisely because he showed that he did not lust for power.
The old guards of Nepali politics—as those of other countries—need to learn from this example of Mandela’s wisdom and magnanimity and pass on the leadership of their political parties and the whole nation to the younger generation.
A thousand Mandelas
Many Nepalis, like people in other countries, often say that we need a charismatic leader like Mandela, Lee-Kuan Yew or Mohammad Mahatir to rescue our country from the current mess. Such yearning is understandable but also highly unrealistic and escapist. We had our Gautam Buddha, Prithvi Narayan Shah and BP Koirala. More recently, we had some modern-day Marxist-Leninist-Maoist demagogues trying to sell us their self-proclaimed agragami agenda, who have seriously let us down.
I, for one, am not waiting for a single Nepali Mandela to rescue this nation. Let us be inspired and learn from Mandela but not wait for his Nepali incarnation. What we need is to cultivate hundreds or thousands of local Mandelas in our villages and districts, including through periodic local elections. Nepal is surely capable of producing many mini-Mandelas at the local level. Their cumulative influence is more likely to unleash this country’s development potential than waiting for a single Mandela or messiah to liberate us from our predicament.