Mandela Moments: Lessons in Selflessness

Mandela leaves us at a time when we know that the democratic path has rough patches and the walk to freedom is ongoing. Let us be guided by the unfaltering light of his selflessness.

*Zenobia Ismail [2013] is a South African student doing a PhD in Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge. Between 2008 and 2011 she was involved in multi-country research on democracy and governance in sub-Saharan Africa. Her interest is in the democratisation process in Africa, particularly with regard to the efficacy and integrity of elections in dominant party states.

In 1996 Nelson Mandela made his first official visit to the United Kingdom as head of state. South Africa House was a-buzz with planning for this great occasion and all the members of the royal family communicated their desire to be involved. Phil Collins and other celebrities were performing a special concert at the Royal Albert Hall in his honour.

Through a confluence of circumstances I was able to meet the first democratically elected president of my country at the residence of the South African high commissioner in Kensington. The event was held to allow South Africans living in the United Kingdom to meet their new leader. The first thing that struck me about Nelson Mandela when he emerged into the room was his height. At six feet or more he towered over the high commissioner, erect and statuesque, even after years of labour in the lime quarry at Robben Island, and with a distinctive shock of white hair. He was clad in one of the African shirts that would become his signature style.

Immediately I understood why he was viewed as such a great threat by the apartheid state. The regal presence of this African leader was enough to challenge the child-like stereotypes of African people in which paternalist white rule, segregation and eventually apartheid were rooted. His message was simple and conciliatory, South Africa needs you, come back home. Even though I was a young girl, he addressed me as 'mama', an Nguni term of respect, in our brief chat.


The negotiation process between Mandela and De Klerk was stormy by the latter's own admission and in the memories of those who were part of the process, but they were determined to find common ground. Agreement among enemies is strenuous and requires true commitment on both sides. In the spirit of reconciliation Mandela visited the widow of the architect of apartheid, Hendrik Verwoerd. This example filtered through the population as ordinary South Africans broke segregationist taboos and reached out to one another in parking lots and supermarkets through small acts of kindness and friendliness.

Afrikaner rugby fans tried to bond with black shop assistants over the Africa Cup of Nations soccer tournament and everyone, especially Mandela, supported the Springboks during the rugby world cup. Their efforts were fruitful and in that magical time South Africa won both cups. People began seeing fellow citizens of different races through their similarities rather than their differences. The world was inspired and Mandela became a peace icon whose name recognition spread to remote villages across the world.

If there is one lesson we can learn from this great man it should be selflessness. In selflessness he abandoned his royal status and legal career to become the most infamous opponent of apartheid. He was imprisoned for 27 years for his beliefs and militant activities, but began negotiating with his captors from his cell. He was selfless in forgiving his enemies, embracing the rainbow nation vision, supporting amnesty and making many other compromises for the sake of peace and a better future for all South Africans. His final acts of selflessness were stepping down after one term as president so that South Africa could chart its future independently of his iconic status and admitting to the world that his son had died of AIDS in an effort to break yet another South African taboo.

Mandela leaves us at a time when we know that the democratic path has rough patches and the walk to freedom is ongoing. Let us be guided by the unfaltering light of his selflessness.

Before You Go