“ …a man of uncommon grace and compassion, for whom abandoning bitterness and embracing adversaries was not just a political strategy but a way of life.”
——Bill Clinton on Nelson Mandela
Once in a while, the world is blessed with the presence of human beings whose leadership inspires and lifts the spirit, changing the face of society for the better: a true statesman —or stateswoman.
One of the brightest of soul and heart, whose global influence and legacy will transpire for ages to come has just passed away, the unforgettable Nelson Mandela (1918-2013). His passing compelled us not only to analyze his life’s work, but also to put it in a larger context and decant the core virtues that define the true statesman —regardless of time and space.
Most deservedly so, the world has consistently shown true respect, admiration, and even reverence to such sporadic and extraordinary human beings. Unfortunately, these unique people don’t come along that often; though, on the fortunate side, there have already been enough cases throughout history that allow a deeper analysis.
Thus, it is not difficult to decode what is behind the virtuosity of true statesmanship, that is, to analyze common traits, values, and practices that have made those people true icons of mankind.
Two characteristics made Nelson Mandela such an outstanding example of true statesmanship:
Far from being poisoned and consumed by bitterness, resentment, hatred, and thirst for vengeance towards white people, while unjustly incarcerated during 27 years —mainly for political reasons— basically uncommunicated from the rest of the world, Mandela developed the spiritual stature of true forgiveness towards the white and racist ruling minority of the time. He gained the wisdom to understand that hatred is self destructive, and instead transformed it into constructive energy and channeled it to uproot the primitive racist values of Apartheid. His efforts were directed toward the system, not toward specific people or groups.
Madiba, as he prefered to be called, acquired the wisdom to reinvent himself into a statesman, from his humble beginnings as a social activist that in earlier years when out of desperation and impotence, had even resorted to tactics of violence and sabotage. What a profound virtuous transformation did Mandela experience! His high spirit, extraordinary political perception, grit, and ability to learn from and adapt to new changing circumstances, and evolve with righteousness were truly remarkable.
True statesmanship is thus characterized by an extraordinary perception of the most adequate balance in the most important cost/benefit relationships, of the most crucial aspects of society’s leadership and management.
The essence of true statesmanship is not a rigid adherence to the past, but a prudent and probing concern for the future.
——Hubert H. Humphrey
Mandela also had an abundant supply of the fundamental and indispensable characteristics of superb statesmanship:
A very high dose of spirituality in day-to-day life, permanently placing the common good before personal benefit. That is, he had the vision, the courage, and wisdom to go against the prevailing conventionalism of his time in pursuit of the common good.
The ability to reconcile. The ability to pull together antagonizing forces. Madiba’s wit and great sense of humor were also a big plus.
As a corollary of the previous couple of points, Mandela had it crystal clear in his mind the great value of stepping out of office after only one term as president, even though there was a very strong popular demand for him to stay for a second term. He was way beyond the trappings of power and fame. Mandela learnt the superlative importance of setting the bar very high, of setting virtuous precedents. As the old Greek proverb says: A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.
And, above all, he had a great sense of the high impact that society would attain by smartly leveraging his unparalleled moral authority, image and prestige in building and fortifying South African institutions in pursuit of the best practices the world had to offer.
Nelson Mandela represents a before and after in many respects, particularly in regard to race discrimination and reconciliation. He dismantled the most grotesque faces of apartheid with firmness, great balance, and grace. Mandela had the unique opportunity to put into practice an entire credo of virtuosity.
There have been a handful of great statesman in the past three centuries; among others: George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, Robert Schuman, Deng Xiaoping, Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, Lula da Silva, Pope Francis I, and of course, Nelson Mandela.
The fundamental traits of great statesmanship have already been outlined a few paragraphs back. Of utmost importance, there is a momentous distinction between great and superb statesmanship: the presence and relentless practice of the highest moral values, particularly the highest spiritual principles, distinguish the superb statesman. That was Mandela’s case.
There is no exaggeration to state that a superb statesman behaves with a very high level of virtue and, not surprisingly, no small measure of sainthood, in some specific aspects:
Mandela’s forgiveness onto others, after 27 years in jail —essentially ridding himself of bitterness, resentment, hatred, and thirst for vengeance—, in pursuit of a higher goal, the common good, is an impeccable example.
Mahatma Gandhi, with his legendary peaceful resistance, and the search for harmony among different ethnic and religious groups, along with his consistent refusal to occupy high office is another excellent example of true statesmanship. Gandhi, along with Mandela, were in a league of their own; the world hadn’t seen statesmen like these, whose legacy has rippled throughout the world.
Deng Xiaoping rose above and broke the chain of bloodshed, violence, and revenge that had characterized the Chinese Communist regime up to Mao, and his successor, Hua Guofeng. During Mao’s government, there had been several displays of violence toward Deng’s family —after a series of sketchy events, Deng’s imprisoned son was left paraplegic as a result of being tortured during Deng’s last purge prior to Mao’s death. After Mao’s death, Deng destituted Hua, and gave testimony of greatness by forgiving him. In this regard, Deng Xiaoping’s case is not that different from Mandela’s, as far as essentially ridding themselves of bitterness, resentment, hatred, and thirst for vengeance; looking forward in a constructive way, in pursuit of the common good.
Pope Francis’s ascetic lifestyle began as a priest, and now, he’s trying to implement it church-wide as Pope; breaking with age-old papal practices.
All previous cases are unquestionable examples of high virtue, of superb statesmanship.
True statesmanship must be an aspiration for the political class all around the world. The inherent virtues should be a source of inspiration for the global political system. Yes, most politicians are far from it, and that is why it is up to society (individual and institutional level) to have these superb and great examples of statesmanship in mind to permanently contribute and exert as much pressure as possible in governments’ actions, in the pursuit of the common good, and ultimately, raising the level of society’s consciousness.