Thursday, June 27, 2013

On Nelson Mandela, George Washington and Greatness

Nelson Mandela appears to be gravely ill, and tributes are beginning pour out from all corners of the world. Clearly, I am in no position to say anything special that won't be said elsewhere, but that isn't going to stop me from postponing work this morning for a couple of minutes while I give you my thoughts.

I think we have established that I am not an overly sentimental person, nor do I tend to overtly idolize people I don't know (although I have maybe been known to be a little bit hyperbolic). I also tend to be pretty hard on elected leaders and public officials. But you know what I am going to throw out there today? For all of the praise heaped upon Mr. Mandela, I actually think he is somewhat under-appreciated as a historical figure.

I'm sure that seems a little strange to say about someone who is pretty universally adored and rarely, if ever, criticized. So, let's examine the whole story...

Mention Mandela, and almost immediately the thoughts of most listeners go to his achievements in leading the fight to overturn Apartheid. And indeed, he led a revolution from a political prison, laboring tirelessly under extreme oppression to push a consistent message of equality and democracy. Ultimately, his revolution came peacefully, through negotiation and election.

But that, to me, is only a small piece of the story. History is littered with revolutionaries, many of whom suffered similarly to throw off horribly oppressive regimes. What there are very few of, however, are revolutionaries that transitioned seamlessly into effective governors. In fact, there is a much longer list of revolutionaries who became absolute monsters - Mao, Pol Pot, Castro, Amin, the Ayatollahs...

Mandela joins only a small list of people who led a revolution, but then became a nation-builder. He served as the first democratically elected leader of the post-apartheid South Africa, and his government was marked by inclusion, openness and development...never once with feelings of revenge or retribution. He spent 27 years in prison for demanding equality, but from the day he was released, his entire focus was on moving forward, not on delivering punishment for the past.

There is, as far as I can see, only one real historical parallel to Mandela: George Washington. While they led very different types of revolutions, both were the unquestioned leaders of their struggles. After winning their prize, though, both instantly became effective executives firmly devoted to the business of governing and to the principles of democracy and self-rule.

And most importantly...the truly remarkable, unmatched historical event...they both voluntarily ceded power. After the American Revolution, Washington appeared before Congress to return to them the commission as Commander in Chief that they had bestowed upon him early in the war.  He ignored the likely temptation to use his status as head of the army to install himself King, and established the principal that no man is bigger than the nation, and that the military answers to civilians. It was this act that led George III to say "If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world."

Just to drive the point home, Washington did the same thing again after he was called out of "retirement" to serve as President. After serving two terms, and guaranteed of an easy, landslide election for as long as he cared to serve, he voluntarily chose to step down and once again established a standard (now a law) that no person should hold the Presidency for longer than two terms.

Nelson Mandela did the same. He served one term as President, establishing a forward-looking, conciliatory tone for the new South Africa, and then turned down the opportunity to be President for life, with an unlimited ability to expand his own power.

And that, more than leading a revolution, is why I think he is under-appreciated. He stands, in all of recorded history, on the smallest and tallest of pedestals reserved only for those immune to the corrupting influence of power.

3 comments:

Nilsa @ SoMi Speaks said...

Nicely said. I appreciate your ability to give perspective to current events.

A said...

No. 1 hero. Seriously everything I read about him makes me cry. Including this. :)

Mrs. Adventure said...

Wow I learned so much from you today - thanks dude :o)