Let me be honest here. I am not a fan of Mandela. No. It would be an understatement to say that I am a fan. He means way more than that to me. So much more. He is Madiba. He is the “father”.
The father that inspires me. Inspires me to be the best I can be for others. The man who showed me that one person can make a difference. A difference that is good for others and oneself.
He is the father that made us a nation. A flawed nation, but a nation nonetheless. Like any good father he loves us for who we are and who we can be. He disciplines us when we are wrong, but he loves us unconditionally. We might rebel every now and again, but we know we are his children. We know because he served us for 27 years while in jail. Never waivering in his belief that we can and should be better than what we were. And we don’t always know why he loves us and cares for us. But he does. He loves us warts and all. Like a father should.
He reminds us of our place in the world. He made us part of a larger family. Reminded us of our place in this world. Our responsibility to others in this world. Told us to take his family motto of love to the world. To never be quiet when we see injustice done. No matter what the consequences might be. And the world loves him for this. The world that believes in love, peace and responsibility.
He is ubuntu. Believing in others more than himself. Serving others and caring for others not because he has to but because it is what makes him Madiba. Like breathing. He just does what should be done. No hidden agenda. He is because others are. He is us – the us we want to be.
To call me a fan would be an understatement. Get it?
So why do I even start comparing Obama to Mandela? I don’t know. I have been watching him and listening to him. And something in him spoke to me. I couldn’t put my finger on it. But I think it is because he reminds me of my own father – Madiba.
And not just because they look alike. Yes they do and it has nothing to do with them both being black. They have the same shaped head and thin long jaw. No wait, it’s the mouth and the eyes. Those mouths are the same – just look at those lines next to their mouths. It is a carbon copy of each other. It comes from easy laughs and smiles. And the eyes. Notice how they look at you when they talk to you. They look at you and you can see in their eyes that they actually believe what they say. Of course it helps that they are also build the same. Lean and tall. But I think the younger Mandela would take out Obama in a fight though – just look at those early boxing photo’s. But they look the same.
Make no mistake – not everyone will like Obama. And that is a good thing. Mandela wasn’t liked by everyone. Not everyone in this world saw him as the peacemaker. They kept him in jail dude. How could they like him when he told them that what they did were wrong? People have ego’s and self-interest to look after. And Mandela challenged those. Of course you can’t find those people anywhere now. They just don’t exist anymore. Denying that they ever disliked him – except behind closed doors. They are gone – just like those who hated Kennedy and MLK when they were alive. They just hated Mandela for what he stood for. Someone who asked them to be better than what they were. Asking them to change and get out of their comfort zone. And those same people will hate Obama and what he stands for. Asking people to change and be better than what they are. And many of those people who hated Mandela were those in power. Those who benefited from the system. And those would be the people who will hate Obama most. People who benefit from the system. And those who are trying to tell people that the system benefits everyone. Of course they are wrong. Some people benefit more than others. And some people have more power than others. And those in power will hate Obama the way that Mandela was hated by the Apartheid regime. They don’t want change because they are happy where they are – in charge and in it for their own benefit alone. You watching Washington? But great leaders don’t waver just because people don’t like them. Mandela didn’t and Obama shouldn’t. Stick to the plan. Stick to what your heart and mind tell you are the right things to do. Those who hate you today will be quiet tomorrow.
Don’t expect Obama to be perfect though. Mandela wasn’t. Mandela made some huge mistakes. Just look at his original position on HIV/Aids. That was a big mistake. And Obama will make mistakes. Who doesn’t? Show me a leader and I will show you mistakes. But great leaders will overcome this and learn from their mistakes. It is not the mistakes that counts, it is how you respond once you realize that you are wrong. Leaders make mistakes. Great leaders learn from them and work through their mistakes.
I don’t get the “Obama is a great speaker” bit that Hillary is trying to sell people. He isn’t. He stutters and don’t have an easy flow. But he is great at saying the right things. That’s why they care about what he has to say. That’s why they listen. Because he doesn’t talk to them, but with them. People can sense that when he talks. He means what he says and it matters. Mandela was the same. He was the worse speaker you can think of. Same stuttering and lack of flow. But people listened because they knew that what he said mattered. Because he was talking with them. And they could feel that he meant what he said. They knew that they were in the presence of something great. They knew that they were in the presence of someone who will make them better than what they are. That was Mandela and that is Obama. They talk with us and about us. In the same fallible way we talk.
Great leaders lead. They are born to do this. They didn’t decide one day to become this leader. They just lead because it is their destiny. They will tell you that it will be difficult to go where they want to go, but that the end would be better. They don’t try and tell people about every policy and every detail of how they will govern. No. They paint people a picture and tell them to follow. And the most difficult part is when they have to take people to places where they don’t want to go. Outside their comfort zone. Mandela did that a few times. When popular leaders tried the populist routs and targeted the white communities. They shouted slogans like “kill the farmer, kill the boer” and “one settler, one bullet”. And Mandela stood up and berated them in front of everyone. Asking them who is the leader? Who will lead people to a better place? That it is easy to shout slogans, because it spoke to our worse fears and thoughts. But that real leaders go forwards and take people with them – sometimes kicking and screaming. I know. I was at some of those rallies. And Obama does the same. He berated the Clintons because they were starting to do the populist thing – insulting Obama and trying to drag him into a bit of mud slinging. And he almost fell for it. He almost got involved in their fight. But he remembered what this was all about. It’s about America and the future, not about Obama and the Clintons. And he berated them because that is not the way you lead. That’s the way you herd cattle, not the way you lead.
Mandela always put people first. He told us that South Africa is about the people in South Africa. No matter where they come from or the color of their skin. It was always people first. And we could sense that. We could sense the way he cared was something we have never experienced before. That he cared more for his people than he cared about himself. That it was about you and not him. And I hear that and see that in Obama. That this is about the American people. No matter where you come from or who you are. This is your time. This is the time for Americans to take America back. To take it back to the place that we all love. Yes, we all love. Because no matter where you are, people across the world loved America and what it stood for. But we haven’t had that America since Kennedy died. It’s been all politics since then. Every President trying to leave a legacy. And the easiest way that those Presidents got their legacy was through wars or paying people off through tax breaks or aid. They forgot what America stood for. And in Obama we see the opportunity to take America back to the place that we all inspire to become. The land of the free.
A land of hope. Mandela gave us that. He gave us hope for a better tomorrow. A better tomorrow for us and our children. He showed us that we can be better than what we are. That we can have a better tomorrow. That it won’t always be easy. But that we can have a better tomorrow through hard work and a steadfast vision. Mandela gave us hope for a better South Africa. And we are better. Better than at any stage in our history. Not perfect. Just better. And that’s the hope. We are not stupid. We know that life will never be a walk in the park. That’s life. We live and learn. And hope we have more enjoyment than struggles. But it is a hope of a better future we can believe in. Not a false hope of a perfect future. And that’s what Obama is giving America. Hope. That is the most powerful thing that he is giving America. Hope for a better future. And the difference is that it is not only a hope we can believe in, but a hope that we know he believes in. Politicians always try to give us hope. But we are not stupid. We can hear in their voices that it is a hope they are trying to sell us. Not a hope they believe in. But Obama gives America a hope he believes in. He is painting a picture, not trying to sell an empty hope.
And of course Mandela was all about change. Change in the type of leader we had and change in the type of government we had. Obama won’t have to change a whole political system. But in a way his challenge is even more difficult. He doesn’t have the opportunity to get rid of all the old dead wood in government. No, they will remain in power. But he has to fight them day in and day out. Get them moving – kicking and screaming. But he can do it as long as he stays true and he remains open and honest with the American people. But change will come. The real benefit of change in Washington will most likely only come after he has left office. When the new breed of leaders come through. Those who saw this path of Obama and decided to take change to Washington. But Obama will plant the seeds and we will continue to eat the fruit when he leaves.
And like Mandela Obama will have very little experience in running a country. Leaders don’t need experience. They just need to employ the right people to make it happen. They paint the picture and others will make it happen. Mandela had no experience. 27 years in jail does not give you any experience to run a country. But he is the greatest leader the world has seen since Ghandi. And talk about Ghandi – what experience did he have? A bit of traveling in South Africa? And Churchill? He was a journalist in South Africa before he took up politics. And the same with Kennedy – not a lot of experience for such a young man. Great leaders are born, not made. Experience is needed for a Vice President and the Generals. Not for those who must lead a country.
In a way experience can be counter to what we really need. It muddies the water and creates white noise. You want someone to have experience in Washington where all the problems are? That just makes them part of the problem. Not the solution. Did you want experience when you got married? No, you just wanted someone to love you and help you figure out this complex world. Love was the only experience you wanted. Obama has just the right amount of experience in Washington to know that it doesn’t work. And that he should do this before he gets sucked into that system as well.
Obama is America’s Mandela. He speaks with us and not to us. He gives us hope we can believe in and not a packaged hope ready for a quick sale. He gives us a future we can believe in and that he believes in. He gives us back our rightful place in the world, not one forced upon us and them. He gives us leadership to take us where we need to go, not always where we want to go. He gives us belief in us as people because he believes in us. He gives us the experience of leadership, not the leadership of the status quo. He leads us, but don’t herd us. Most of all. He gives us the inspiration to be better than what we are. He inspires us to be better than what we are and better for each other. He has shown us a future we can believe in. A future where America is free. And an America we and the world can love again.
We used to shout slogans whenever we saw Madiba. It was our way to honor him. Viva Mandela, viva. Long live, Madiba, long live. Viva Barack, viva. Long live, Obama, long live.
Note: If Obama is Mandela does it make Hillary Mbeki? Yes. Like Mbeki she will be loved by some and hated by others because of her ideological bias and political baggage. She will divide people more than bring them together. And like Mbeki she will reflect the old school politicians. Those with ties to the past leadership and ties to the political system. Those with the experience of doing nothing. Those who the system say they hate, but love because nothing will really change. But like Mbeki she will be a good manager of government. But it will be a government of limited change. Only change around the edges. A few policies and practices. But not change of the system that created the problems to start off with. And like Mbeki she will not give us hope or inspire us. She will manage the country and do no worse than other Presidents. But you won’t look back and remember her in the same way you will remember Kennedy, Ghandi, Madiba or Churchill. Your children will look back and learn about her. But as a President that did good things and bad things. Not as a President that defined who we are and who we can be. But with Obama you might. You stand a chance. With Obama you might actually make the world believe in itself again.