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Ongama Mtimka writes that as Mandela month comes to a close, we should think about how we emulate the values Madiba modelled in order to honour his legacy.


Nobel Laureate Nelson Rholihlahla Mandela left an indelible mark and example when it comes to the virtues of self-sacrifice and courage in leadership. As we conclude Mandela Month, it is crucial to think about how we lead our lives to emulate these important values he modelled to pay homage to his legacy. 

The word sacrifice conjures up many things, from religious offerings of material possessions and other things to please a deity, to giving up things one has or is entitled to for the benefit of others or the greater good. 

Isizwe sifa ngomntu omnye, so goes an IsiXhosa proverb. It means that "a nation may perish on account of one person". It suggests an interconnectedness between the rights and privileges of individuals and the fates of families, villages, or nations they may belong to.

In other words, the proverb drives the idea that consequences of individual choices and actions may be far greater than the individuals concerned and may result in greater devastation than is proportionate as retribution for a wrong the individual may have done. 

Consequences of individual freedoms 

Based on this tendency for individual freedoms to sometimes have more significant consequences, nurturing members of society to be humane and conscientious is very important. A person who values sacrifice for the greater good knows not to make any choice that may plunge an entire family, village, town, or nation into a crisis, even if it maximises their private gain.

There are many examples from Mandela's life where sacrifices are made in pursuit of the greater good. He allowed his involvement in the liberation struggle to affect his business and social life negatively; he chose to pay the ultimate price for freedom and availed his co-accused and himself as martyrs before an unjust apartheid court, just to leave a powerful story which could be used to rally freedom fighters to continue the struggle; he chose continued imprisonment to denouncing the liberation struggle in exchange for his freedom in the 80's.  

The idea is simple, great leaders and members of society – from nation to the family, the most basic unit, must know not to take their freedoms or benefits when the ideal of common nationhood, stability, and peace might be the ultimate price paid for it. 

Acknowledging sacrifice as an essential value would go a long way in solving some of the problems we confront as a nation. It may involve choosing to educate the child of a domestic worker over and above given them a fair pay; getting one's family involved in charity work, immediate or long term; devoting time and skills to mentor others; it may mean sharing some of the privileges people have with lesser privileged people. In turn, sacrificing for others has a way of paying off in many ways. 

The virtue of courage that Madiba left with us has once again become important as South Africa finds herself in the realm of the ambiguous. Oxford Languages defines courage as the "ability to do something that frightens one; bravery". The latter is what I would like to focus on in the definition, especially when it comes to leading in uncertain times. 

There are two moments worth highlighting from Madiba regarding bravery. Firstly, his courage to lead the process of resorting to the armed struggle and becoming its commander in chief in the 1960's. The idea is said to have not been popular among the ANC top brass at the time. Yet, having read the moment that South Africa and black people found themselves in, Madiba dared to pursue the idea of the armed struggle as an inevitable choice dictated by the times. 

The second one is the period that started with the secret talks with him in Prison in the 1980's and the leadership he provided in the transition to democracy. Mandela's belief that the time had come for South Africa to undertake a new path towards democracy through peaceful means was pursued amid severe criticism at times. 

Desired future state

The thing about leading during times of transition is that it requires a leader who is fully persuaded about things to come; a leader who not only has an effective grasp of the undesirability of the status quo but one whose heart burns with the possibility of the desired future state. 

Leading during times of transitions and transformations attracts significant criticism as it invites many to the battleground of knowledge and practice. Critics, comrades, opponents, and many stakeholders have vested interests in leadership outcomes and watch every step of the leader to see the extent to which their actions affirm or deviate from their preferred approach. 

Madiba led with courage despite the disagreements with some of his comrades when MK was formed in the early 60's and when the call was made to abandon the liberation struggle in the late 80's; his leadership saw him continue negotiating with the apartheid government; and he led when difficult compromises had to be made for the sake of peace and sustainability. 

He led when all that could be in South Africa existed more in his heart and mind than as self-evident potential reality. Violence had confronted him and preached the opposite. Yes, he was frustrated, but he had the resolve to forge ahead with the transition to democracy. 

There are usually too many variables that are moving targets and whose nature also changes within short periods during times of uncertainty. The established truths shared among a leader's inner circles or their constituency may be "emerging" and not clear. In those times, it takes great courage and boldness to acknowledge the possibility of things to come and do all one can to ensure it becomes a reality, winning new allies and losing others. 

We find ourselves at such a time in South Africa. May leaders who are equal to the task arise.  

This article appeared on News24 on 26 July 2021 written by Ongama Mtimka, a lecturer at Nelson Mandela University and executive chairperson at Evoke Primary Research Cooperative. He writes in his personal capacity. 

PHOTO CRED: iinkumbuzo Photography

Contact information
Dr Ongama Mtimka
Tel: 0415044819