Jul 19th, 2012 10:50 AM UTC
By Guest Blogger
Semhar Araia, the founder and executive director of the Diaspora African Women’s Network, reflects on some of the lessons she learned from Nelson Mandela over the years.
“Your freedom and mine cannot be separated. I will return.” -Nelson Mandela
Every now and then, the world is given the chance to bear witness to life’s ultimate truths through the journey of a single person. From time to time, that person’s actions, his words and deeds, and his quest for a greater existence leave a lasting legacy with his community and his fellow countrymen. In the rarest of times, that person’s quest for peace, justice and equality resonates so deeply, it’s carried in the hearts and minds of every single man, woman and child on this earth.
This is what Nelson Mandela means to me.
For many Africans in the diaspora, Madiba’s life is an infinite source of lessons and teaching moments. His place in history affirms our place in the world as Black African global citizens, leaders and peacemakers. He is the definitive African example of leadership, good governance and diplomacy.
I’m grateful to have been alive as a young adult during South Africa’s transition from apartheid to a young democratic government. I remember going to anti-apartheid demonstrations with my mother in the mid-1980s. It was the earliest teaching I can remember seeing the collective responsibility we had in the diaspora to fight for justice, freedom and peace in Africa.
Because of Nelson Mandela, I learned about human rights from the African perspective. It was deeper than independence from our colonizers, this was about the right to move, associate, think, speak and contribute freely to your country’s well being so that you can have a better life. To me, Mandela’s life represents the essence of Africa’s freedom — the right of all people to be heard, to organize, to speak, to dissent and to live safely in peace and justice.
Courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear. -Nelson Mandela
Nelson Mandela reminds us of Africa’s ability to forgive and accept the other; to turn the struggle against the enemy into a partnership for coexistence. His message pushes us to look within and strive to be better so that we may genuinely serve others. Most importantly, he epitomizes the wisdom and willingness leaders must have to accept the transformational change each person is bound to go through.
Often times, many of us wonder what lies ahead for Africa and its people. We think about the continent’s fortunes and misfortunes, envisioning ways to forge a better path full of promise and progress for all. Ultimately, we hit the $64 million question –- what did Mandela do? How can we learn from him? Most importantly, what do we need to do to develop more leaders like him?
I call these questions my “Mandela Moments,” those undeniable, unshakable moments of relation and reflection where we review South Africa’s history and try to draw lessons from Mandela’s humble style of leadership and vision. Regardless of cause, country, value system or familiarity with Africa, nearly anyone’s challenge can somehow be resolved by looking back to see how Mandela faced a similar challenge.
Mandela Moments for Africa
Mandela’s life, all 94 years of it, reflect a remarkable period of one transition after another. Sixty-seven years of commitment to justice and peace took on many forms. From an organizer-turned-prisoner, to a political leader-turned-first black president, to a former leader and seasoned diplomat, his vision for a free, just and equal society never wavered. For Africa, there are many Mandela Moments we can learn from.
Peace is the greatest weapon for development that any person can have. -Nelson Mandela
On Peace & Conflict Resolution: Mandela is proof that peace is an ongoing process that exists long before, during and after the agreements are signed and awards are given. It is the common and genuine pursuit of a more equitable, just, forgiving and safe world with the other.
Peace survives when the people are willing to push for it and cultivate it with the enemy, regardless of the obstacles. Mandela showed us that peace cannot come from external forces or influence. It must originate from the individual, when the heart and mind are devoid of personal agendas, grievances or egos and fully committed to peace and coexistence. After this personal commitment, Mandela taught us that peace is achieved and sustained when enemies choose coexistence over war or insecurity. When they choose forgiveness and reconciliation along with calls for justice.
“One of the things I learned when I was negotiating was that until I changed myself, I could not change others.” -Nelson Mandela
On Leadership & Governance: We know by watching Mandela’s many years in the ANC, in his subsequent imprisonment and ultimately as the country’s first black president, that leadership and good governance must exist at all levels for systemic change.
Leadership must go beyond one person’s definition or party vision. Mandela’s willingness to work across party lines and sit with the enemy in the post-apartheid days was incredibly risky, human and forgiving. Many felt he had abandoned the struggle and gave in. His actions showed that real leadership is collaborative, collective and inclusive -– exactly the opposite of authoritative, corrupt or inflexible approaches. It is having steadfast focus on the common goal with forgiving flexibility, inclusiveness and the vision to adjust to human conditions.
On Development: For Black South Africans, apartheid represented more than an institutionalized form of racism and subjugation. Apartheid was also a life of systemic poverty, economic warfare, denial of basic human rights and massive suffering for millions of Black Africans.
Mandela saw the nexus between the people’s right to assemble and organize and enjoy full political and economic rights. The prosperity and freedom of one group depended on the prosperity and freedom of the other. He knew that government could not improve township living, or create jobs, or pursue long term national development if it did not recognize the right of Black labor unions, students, women, and other marginalized groups to assemble, participate and engage with government. Development, prosperity and the protection of all human rights were interconnected.
On Power: In my view, Mandela’s greatest act as president was the day he chose to step down. Not because he should have stepped aside, but because in that gesture, he displayed such vision and wisdom, which injected more faith in the country’s political process and system than it did in one man’s ability to lead. After one term, only five years, Mandela made way for his successors and focused on serving his country through civic life. He knew South Africa’s young life as a free country needed to breathe and grow. It needed new life with more focus on the next generation of leaders.
There are many more Mandela Moments to learn from, but on this Mandela Day, I hold these as perhaps the greatest lessons he’s taught me. The world is a much safer, loving and tolerant place because of Madiba. We are forever thankful.
Happy Birthday Madiba!
July 18, 2012
Semhar Araia is the founder and executive director of the Diaspora African Women’s Network. She previously worked for The Elders, an organization founded by Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Graca Machel, Kofi Annan and ten other world leaders, from 2007 to 2008.
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