It will be easy to remember Nelson Mandela, the iconic, larger-than-life activist and freedom crusader. Reflections on Mandela will, naturally, focus on the human rights-advocate aspect of his life: from years unjustly locked in an apartheid-era prison to his obsession with racial reconciliation in a country that seemed irreversibly distant from it.
While Mandela’s personal biography certainly stirs the soul, often serving as a recipe for inspirational social change, it’s not the only chip he brought to the table. There is a tendency to either overlook or underestimate his executive acumen and leadership style. It took considerable skill and political trade craft to pull off what many deemed impossible: somehow peacefully guiding Africa’s largest and most powerful economy through a period of radical political transformation.
But even during his one term as president of South Africa, the rest of the world seemed to give little thought to exactly how he was doing as a head of state. We seem satisfied with knowing nothing more beyond the legends and tales that have molded him into a sort of metaphysical or mystical being. Yet, Mandela the governor or chief executive was probably much more consequential and transcendent than Mandela the activist and revolutionary.
This is critical to note because Africa is littered with numerous stories of post-colonial revolutionaries who dethrone despotic regimes only to find that governing countries is much harder than waging rebellions and civil wars. Building is much tougher than destroying. In that sense, Mandela was truly a diamond in the continental rough. And the almost mythological pedestal on which we eagerly put him corrosively short-changes his substance as a leader and a manager. While re-watching the peculiar semi-biopic Invictus, a worthwhile drama about Mandela and the 1995 South African rugby World Cup team, shortly after news of Mandela’s death, I was struck by how director Clint Eastwood (of all people) managed to capture the routine and rather effective governance style of the man known as Madiba.
There is a fascinating and highly impactful governance model in President Nelson Mandela’s story that gets glossed over for a variety of reasons. Mainstream pop-cultural reference to Mandela can be annoyingly lazy and racially one-dimensional—it’s easier relegating historical black change agents to nothing more than very vocal wordsmiths who give good speeches and stage large protests. This is, for example, part of the problem that has plagued President Barack Obama since he was a candidate. There is an entrenched and culturally myopic segment of the population unwilling to take him seriously as a national executive or perceive him as someone much more than a “community activist,” much less have any confidence in letting a black man run anything.
There was something fresh about Mandela’s style of national management that was radically different from his peers throughout the continent, such as stubborn neighbor Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe. Mandela chose a pragmatic approach that, if examined more closely, served as a bridge from Africa’s infamous post-colonial tyrant and corruption model to what we’re now witnessing as a dynamic African economy and good governance standard. That’s spurred a period of unprecedented growth for the continent, with its economy projected to grow by nearly 6 percent in 2014 and its labor force to expand by 122 million by 2020. In a sign that Africa’s growing middle class is actually real, Wal-Mart’s South Africa subsidiary, Massmart, plans to open 90 new stores throughout sub-Saharan Africa.
Of course there’s quite a bit of work still to do on the beleaguered continent of civil wars, blood diamonds and greedy despots. But, there are massive bright spots that get little attention in the press. There are stable, prosperous middle-class societies such as Botswana, and there are emerging mega-states such as the plan by Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi to form a powerful, politically unified East African Federation, which will tie the economies into one currency.
These trends appeared to escalate and take off during the era of Mandela, as he embraced democratic governance models, hastily dismissing any scent of the autocratic rule that’s gripped African nation states for so long. Mandela’s true calling may have been the 21st-century brand of leadership he introduced to Africa at the end of the 20th.
Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist, Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune and chief political correspondent for Uptown magazine. He can be reached via Twitter.