A Statement from African Leadership President John Walter

A while back, my family hosted an African leader in our home. Over the course of several conversations, it became clear that our friend didn't have a hero in his life. People he looked up to - sure. But a hero? That seemed a step too far. Maybe too many disappointments? It's hard to tell, but I wish he had been with us the other night as news broke about Nelson Mandela's final hours so that together we might reflect on the passing of a great man. 

Nelson Mandela, resilient and exemplary, humble and gifted, jailed yet free. He charted the unchartered, marked up the blueprint, became the dictionary entry for "leadership in hard places."

Photo by Allan Tannenbaum

Where is it written that leaders like Mandela have to be "one in a million?" After signing a new Constitution into law in 1996, he declared that "amongst Africans, Coloured, Indians, and whites there are good men and women without exception . . . The duty of the real leaders of South Africa is to identify those good men and women in all these formations to create an environment where they can pool their talents, their knowledge, their skills, the expertise to pool it so that we can as South Africans benefit from those skills."[1] Words are easy - but Mandela did his best to match his reality to his rhetoric.

Perhaps the answer to these questions - "What? No hero?" and "Why is Mandela so rare?" - can also be found in Mandela. "I am," he said, "an ordinary man who had become a leader because of extraordinary circumstances."[2]

So what would I say to the African leader with no heroes? Maybe he and those like him don't realize that they in fact are living in extraordinary circumstances, circumstances that need ordinary people of courage and conviction like them. Heroes like Mandela paved the way for them.

And why so rare, leaders like Mandela here and abroad? Maybe, just maybe, Mandela really believed he was just an ordinary man, but we know that in the extraordinary circumstances of his life, he drew strength from an unshakeable conviction, and from that, shook the world.

[1] Speech given December 10, 1996. Available nelsonmandela.org/speeches.

[2] (2013, December 6). Editorial: Nelson Mandela: a man of magnetic dignity, was an inspiration to all. Montreal Gazette. Retrieved December 6 2013 from montrealgazette.com.