Constitutional Reform, Politics and Governance, Reconciliation

The long wait for a President…

“How can we inspire ourselves to greatness, when nothing else will do…?” asks Nelson Mandela from Francois Pienaar, the captain of the Springboks rugby team.

This leading question comes from the movie ‘Invictus’ which has just been released. It is based on the true story of how Mandela inspired Pienaar and his team to win the rugby world cup in 1995.

In his first term as president, Nelson Mandela is faced with a country full of people trying to come to terms with their new found democracy, and each other. Healing the terrible legacy of apartheid was a huge challenge and as the new president looked for ways to make a start, his attention soon turned to rugby and the Springbok’s green and gold jersey – much loved by the white Afrikaaners but hated by everyone else.

But Mandela doesn’t ban the jersey or abduct anyone wearing it. Instead, he wore it to the finals of the world cup, cheering the Boks to victory. Realising how deeply divided his country is, Mandela invites Pienaar to talk rugby and share a poem that helped him during his years in prison. Pienaar leaves the president’s office an inspired man and led his team and country to one of the greatest sporting victories of the time.

“This is not the time to celebrate petty revenge, but rebuild our nation…” he says in a speech to the committee that tried to replace the Springbok with the Protea as the symbol of South African sporting teams (The symbol was changed, but the rugby team was exempted and is still known as the springboks).

Well, South Africa has a president who is loved and respected across the colour divide (and who actually stepped down from the post), and a rugby captain with a political conscience. It makes for a great movie and a touching chapter in history.

But what about us Sri Lankans? If you will forgive me for the title of this article (as I’m still in Mandela mode), I have to ask, will we ever have such a leader? How long will we have to wait?

We are emerging from a terrible civil was that has cost thousands of lives and left our economy very much in the red, not to mention a deep divide of our own. And yet there has been no conscious effort to heal the wounds, pick up the pieces or indeed, offer a lasting solution. Forget having a Truth and Reconciliation committee, even our own sports heroes are being used not to bring Sri Lankans together, but for the sake of a few votes.

In a kind of a national pass-the-parcel, with only two players, the people of this country have been tossed back and forth between the Blues and Greens. All the talk of freedom, equality and prosperity has been reduced to pre-election rhetoric. And mud-slinging has become our national sport too.

In a few weeks time, when the ballots have been counted and a president elected, I wonder whether the outcome will matter so much to the ordinary voter on the streets.

There will be the usual parades and speeches. Temple Trees might even be a different colour. But by the time the posters on the walls peel off and the dirty laundry shoved into some cupboard, things will go back to normal – normal levels of corruption, unemployment and crime. Normal numbers of IDP’s. Normal numbers of crossovers. Hundreds of cabinet ministers and jobs for all – relatives and friends.

The Big Man syndrome is here to stay. A president is not for a term – a president is for life.

So, as much as I would love for a Sri Lankan head of state to prove me wrong, I guess I would have to wait a long, long time for an inspirational leader and leave the Mandela type leaders to where I last encountered them – in the movies.