Is this the Mandela?

by Brent Burgoyne – 5 January 2013

It is inevitable that on some day in the future, we will receive word of Nelson Mandela’s passing.

It is inconceivable that we will not remember where we were, and what we were doing when we heard the news. His parting from us will be, of necessity, a sad one, and there will be completely predictable outpourings of grief from everywhere in our country, and from around the world.

How we are impacted by events of every kind depends completely on the stories we tell ourselves about these events. What stories will we tell ourselves about the passing of Madiba?

 Will our stories and conversations be paeans of possibility, or hand-wringing dirges of the downward spiral that have the potential to consume so much of our national bandwidth?

The 14th Dalai Lama, who is acknowledged by many as the reincarnation of the 13th Dalai Lama, has been a spiritual teacher to many and a force for good for most of his life. The Tibetan Buddhists take a very conscious approach to ensuring that they are well led. The thread of spiritual leadership provided by the Dalia Lamas has been around for about six hundred years. It is a tradition of stable, authentic and ethical leadership which is now almost taken for granted. And in the death of a Dalai Lama is to be found new possibilities – the temporary releasing of that role, to be taken up anew by a reincarnation of the deceased. And thus the thread of spiritual leadership continues.

In the inevitable passing of Mandela, we need to look for beginnings of something, perhaps a closing of the loop, even a returning to the place we have been before and knowing it for the first time. What we look for, we can, and will, find.

What if, instead of us thinking of the passing of Mandela as an end, we saw it as a beginning? What if we thought of there being a possibility that the universe might not give us just one Mandela, but many?

What if we thought that in the coming generations yet unborn, there might be more leaders of such stature?

Every mother, cradling a new-born baby, would give her or him especial care. At night she would rock her infant to sleep, and look upon the sleepyhead and ask, “Is this the Mandela?”

A father, tempted to devote himself too completely to a high-powered career, or to stray from the family fold, may be constrained by the thought of the responsibility and high calling to be a father to such a child. Watching his child learn to ride a bike under his tutelage on a suburban street, he would observe the wobbling five-year old, have even deeper feelings of tenderness, and ask, “Is this the Mandela?”

Every school teacher and sports coach, every church or spiritual teacher, would look at every child in their care as precious individuals of huge potential, and would give attention with increased focus to nurturing and teaching and developing these nascent leaders, asking all the while, “Is this the Mandela?”

Every political leader, observing a talented young graduate joining their organisation, would be on their best behaviour, realising the high responsibility of modelling ethical behaviour for the emerging class of young leaders and would look at this young man or woman and ask, “Is this the Mandela?”

I don’t for a moment believe that South Africa is a play with a lousy third act. Viewed through the lens of possibility (which is a positive and realistic, rather than tragic view of the world) it seems that we could have the experience of coming cohorts of authentic leaders who have been raised whole - or nearly so. They will not have to memorise some palindrome of 46664. They will not carry the overt scars of apartheid. Their existence will depend on only one thing. The story we tell ourselves.

We are not naïve. We know that the life of the next Mandela is not without risks: The infant Christ had his Herod and the adult Ghandi his assassin. Martin Luther King has his James Earl Ray. Nelson Mandela faced an entire system of immorally legislated harassment, maltreatment and discrimination - and gave his entire adult life for his truth.

On the face of it, our country is riven by race, and so many of the current cadre of those who hold public office sate themselves at the public trough. Service delivery continues to be appalling. It would be easy to make the telling of these stories our idée fixe. And on top of that the passing of Mandela could be regarded as yet another tragic story.

But there is another story. It’s a story we could tell ourselves that could be both mythical and true: There can be another Mandela, and another, and many more.

All hail, the next Mandela!