Photograph courtesy National Geographic

Give me that man
That is not passion’s slave, and I will wear him
In my heart’s core

Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 2

The death of the moral colossus in the politics of our time has occasioned a worldwide celebration of all things bright and beautiful that he represented in such abundant measure and to such inspirational effect. Not only for his fellow South Africans, but also for the rest of the world, Nelson Mandela personified a superhuman standard of humility, dignity, courage, resilience and forgiveness. As a model of political leadership, his example of bringing the metaphysical ideals of democracy as close as might be possible to the ugly realities of everyday politics will be difficult if not impossible to emulate. His political life and conduct demonstrates the unique combination of Passion and Reason, intellectual depth and moral decency that separates populists from democrats, politicians from statesmen, demagogues from nation-builders. To quote one of his predecessors in the pantheon of greats, “A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed finds utterance.” Like with Nehru in India, it was South Africa’s good fortune that when the moment came, Mandela was there to lead it to “life and freedom.” If that nation-building moment brought out the best in these men, they also used their brilliance and integrity to shape the moment. They imprinted upon their national histories the memory of the higher order values of consent, tolerance, and pluralism, which forged the unity of their nations at their birth. Their concrete legacies are enshrined in the modern constitutions they helped mould.

In South Africa, it would have been the politically easy – and morally unobjectionable – course for Mandela to have led the establishment of a revolutionary new republic, breaking all constitutional ties with the apartheid legal order and instantiating untrammelled majority-rule. In line with the long-held position of the ANC, this would have taken the constitutional form of a unitary state. Such a state would have centralised power horizontally in favour of the executive, because a strong executive unhindered by parliamentary and judicial checks was needed for the accelerated development so badly needed by the black majority. It would have centralised power vertically, sweeping away the corrupt, inefficient and illegitimate anomaly of federalism that had found articulation in the old Bantustans. No one would have been able to criticise such a choice of constitutional model after the abomination of apartheid.

Instead, Nelson Mandela presided over the making of a constitution that eschewed revolution, centralisation and ideological dogmatism. When the case for a complete break with the past could not have been more morally clear, South Africans decided to carefully preserve formal constitutional continuity. From bitter experience elsewhere in Africa, they knew that constitutional revolutions, however justifiable in quotidian circumstances, were in the longer term a destructive precedent for constitutional democracy. The Presidency and the National Assembly, the institutions of majoritarian power, were firmly subjected to the separation of powers and the constitutional control of each other and a powerful Constitutional Court. They introduced a Bill of Rights enforced by an independent judiciary that not only circumscribed political power, but also set out a positive basis for citizenship. In the preservation of cultural and regional diversity, the South African constitution is federal in all but name. In rejecting the outmoded centralising shibboleths of Cold War-era socialism that many still expected of the ANC, they realised the strong democratising dynamism of a federal system of government that could deliver not only better government, but also stronger and more balanced economic growth and development.

To be sure, not all of this was Mandela’s sole achievement. Like in India four decades before, South Africa in the 1990s also had a broad and deep class of political leaders and a vibrant intelligentsia and civil society that came into their own in the making of the constitution. But Nelson Mandela provided the core moral perspectives, a pervading sense of decency and fairness, the inspirational oratory, and the reconciliatory ethos for the new order of political justice that the South African constitution would establish. His own ideals ultimately informed not only the substance but also the interpretive spirit of the constitution, the fundamental legal foundation of the new ‘Rainbow Nation.’ In all these respects, therefore, his modernist leadership was central to the establishment, not of a backward-looking nation limited by the hatreds of the past, or a majoritarian unitary state that would traduce pluralism and inclusivity, or a debilitating African presidential monarchy, but a forward-looking constitutional democracy that inspired, rather than imposed, unity in an otherwise divided plural society, by embracing the universal ideals of the democratic way of life. None of this was preordained. If Mandela was more of an ANC ideological dogmatist and less of a liberal democratic pragmatist, each of these constitutional choices could have been decided differently and for the worse.

Like with Nehru, Mandela’s puissant leadership was founded on the strength of his character and his unerring moral compass, his intelligence, education and cultured urbanity. This is what enabled the rejection of the nativism and the rancour that has characterised the unprincipled use of nationalism all over the post-colonial world, and which has marred and continues to derail democratic nation-building. Jawaharlal Nehru once told John Kenneth Galbraith that he was the last Englishman to rule India. President Mandela’s legal advisor once told me that the striking impression of his personality was that of a public school-educated Edwardian gentleman: a devout votary of the British parliamentary tradition, he had a lawyer’s highly developed sense of constitutional propriety in his approach to politics, and was possessed of courtly manners and a thoroughly Anglophile sense of humour. There is a broader and much more important lesson than cultural sycophancy in these anecdotes. It is that nation-builders of this rare quality are able to take constitutional lessons and learn the best practices of democratic statecraft from elsewhere, without fearing for their own identities or endangering their sense of patriotism. By imparting these traits to the nations they help found, such statesmen create not only free and open societies but also peaceful and stable states, unlike paranoid populists whose only method of political mobilisation is the versatile use of fear. The freedom from fear imbued Nelson Mandela’s personal conduct and political creed throughout his life, and it is the leadership attribute that ensured a plural and inclusive constitutional democracy in his motherland. It is unfortunately not an example that many Asian and African leaders have had the will, the capacity or the character to follow.

  • Sharanga Ratnayake

    Great article. I especially like the comparison to Nehru. Many people compare Mandela to Gandhi, which is just wrong. Mandela was an astute politician who used violence as a tool when he had to, unlike Gandhi who thought non-violence would be feasible against the Nazis. Mandela’s greatness is due to the fact that he didn’t get too carried away with use of violence.

  • Dutugamunu

    A man who carried on his shoulder the weight of a nation . He refused repeated offers for his release over the years rather than betray his beliefs and people , As soon as he released from the jail he said . ” I stand here before you not as a prophet but as a humble servant of you . Your tireless and heroic sacrifices have made it possible for me to be here today , I therefore place the remaining years of my life in your hand .”
    He was a true humblest person we ever remember , and as 1994 , election day arrived the ANC was an illegal organisation and they triumphed. From the begining he was determined his national government would set a broad example of forgiveness , he appointed De KLERK as deputy president also allowed him to stay in th presidential Residance .
    However the new born nation was beset by numerous problems . Poverty , unemployment , shortage of housing ,and blighted the lands . He used the sports to bring the people together , he learnt lot from the other African states , he worked to prevent old white elite . And said ” courageous people do not fear forgiving . At the end most firebrands accused him of coddling the whites .
    However ,extraordinary journey of Mandela , from rural hut to the presidential office , was coming to it’s end . The major question remains in silence for decades , where would his legacy head tomorrow .has he done a concrete foundation to carry out his legacy as he always want ?

  • guest

    After reading this article, I could not help comparing our leaders since independence to Mandela. There is no comparison between Mandela and them. Our people cannot even reach him with the help of a ladder!!!

    if it is a Sri Lankan, the first thing he would have named every street to his name and every institution would be changed to reflect his name and every new building, nook and corner would be named after him. His children and his cousins, siblings, uncles, aunties, BILs, friends would be heading some institution or other whether they have the capacity to handle it or not. Wherever he was invited or not, our leaders would have gone accompanied by 100 catchers with the expenses paid by the Sri lankan tax payers. The President would be heading about 10 different Department without even thinking whether he has the capability or not.

    Changed the official language from english to his native language. They will not even consider, whether that language was sufficiently developed to communicate with other countries or not. Our country is being governed by a set of clowns. Even gods cannot help Sri Lanka.