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Leadership lessons from Mandela and Tutu

November 14, 2012
by H. Steven Moffic, MD
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"If we didn't have apartheid, we wouldn't have had Nelson Mandela"

-Tour bus guide in Johannesburg


If you know about apartheid and all the horrors that Black South Africans suffered for most of the last century, you might be astonished by that statement. I know I was.

I heard it on a recent trip to South Africa. I was there in part to present (with my songstress wife) on the Truth & Reconciliation Commission led by Desmond Tutu, which followed the end of apartheid. This was for an international Creativity and Madness Conference. I would come to conclude that the Truth & Reconciliation Commission was a most creative way to treat the madness of apartheid. Maybe even that the human price of the trade-off might come to be worth it. How can that possibly be?

The only adequate answer can be that South Africa will become the kind of light unto nations that it could never have become otherwise. Right now, in our country, we are rightly focused on the historical leadership lessons of Abraham Lincoln, stimulated by Steven Spielberg's new movie. However, the leadership lessons of Nelson Mandela and the Archbishop Desmond Tutu may also be timely for our political leaders and ourselves. If there was ever a vote for the top global leaders of the last century, they would get my vote in a tie.

The simplified history is this: Nelson Mandela was an early leader in the African National Congress that began 100 years ago to redress the apartheid laws of first, the British led government, then that of the Afrikaners, which separated, subdued, and even brutally slaughtered the Black population. At first, Mandela advocated non-violence, inspired by Gandhi's time in South Africa trying to help the Indians who had settled there. Then, when he concluded that this strategy was not being successful, he advocated violence, at great personal risk. Soon, he was captured, and in 1964 sentenced to life imprisonment. Over time, while in prison, he turned back to a policy of non-violence. Upon his release in 1991 and election to the Presidency in 1994, South Africa avoided a civil war and political violence gradually diminished.

To help to restore relationships across all cultures for a common purpose, the traditional South African principle of ubuntu, he turned to Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the leader while Mandela and others were imprisoned. Tutu recommended a Truth & Reconciliation Commission, which would be a temporary process of hearings alongside the usual legal and justice procedures. It was to be somewhere between complete amnesty for the prior perpetrators and the Nuremberg Trials of the Nazis. From 1996-1998, Tutu established three committees: human rights, amnesty, and reparations.

Although there have been many Truth & Reconciliation processes before and after this one, South Africa's was unique in having these hearings be public and on television. Victims made their hidden suffering known; some perpetrators admitted their crimes under orders, apologized, and received amnesty; and reparations, though limited, were awarded. All told, the Commission seemed to become a kind of moral or political therapy for the nation. Goodness knows, just like the remnants of the slavery abolished by President Lincoln can still be seen in the overrepresentation of young African-American males being imprisoned in the USA, most Black South Africans are still suffering from severe economic hardship. However, forgiveness came to trump revenge.



H. Steven Moffic

H. Steven Moffic

H. Steven Moffic, M.D. retired from the clinical practice of psychiatry and his tenured...

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