This piece was published on December 17, 2013, in the Nation, a daily newspaper published nationally in Malawi. It was published under the title “Celebrating Mandela, the greatness gone.”
Greatness died on Thursday, December 5, 2013 at 20:50 South African time. Nelson Mandela has gone to be with God. A leader of peerless grace, dignity and self-confidence, Mandela set an example for what leadership should be. He died, not with great wealth, but with great moral authority, and he showed us all that political leadership should be a service and not an entitlement. Much has been made of Mandela’s ability to forgive those who had jailed him for 27 years — and rightly so. Suffering, he had; sacrifice, he made. As we remember Mandela for his forgiving spirit, we must also remember his spirit of public service.
If ever there was a man who should have been entitled, it was Mandela. Yet upon the completion of his first term as the first black president of South Africa, he wisely chose not to stand as president again and instead left to serve the role of elder statesman. Instead, he picked the more technocratic Thabo Mbeki to be in his place. Indeed, Thabo Mbeki had effectively been the one who was running the South African economy during Mandela’s presidency. By leaving the presidency after just one term, Mandela had stayed in the presidency just long enough to consolidate democracy but not so long as to lose the reverence that had precluded most South Africans from blaming him for the country’s social and economic problems. In short, he knew when to leave — with his grace and dignity intact.
He had served his country, in jail, as a negotiator to end apartheid, and as president. He had done his part, and so he left to live out his old age modestly but comfortably. He did not leave with great wealth; he had not built himself a huge mansion somewhere in Cape Town. Rather, he had two relatively modest houses, one in his ancestral home of Qunu in the Eastern Cape and another in Johannesburg. He could surely have acquired immense wealth and bequeathed it to his descendants.
On an African continent that continues to suffer the indignity of political leaders who have overstayed their mandates, Mandela was an example of a leader who left right on time. On an African continent replete with self-aggrandizing and thieving leaders, Mandela was content to live within his means and did not abuse the public trust by dipping his hands in the public purse. Here in our beloved Malawi, the values by which Mandela lived his life should be an example not only to our political leaders but also to all of us. As we debate and agonize over the so-called cashgate scandal, we must ask ourselves what values Mandela had that inspired him to serve the public without feeling entitled.
The cashgate scandal should make us all question what our values are — especially those of us who are in public service and live in cities and towns. City dwelling public servants are the ones who allegedly stole enormous amounts of money. Compared to most Malawians, city dwellers are quite privileged. We owe it to our fellow Malawians living lives of unimaginable poverty in rural areas to investigate this scandal and to ensure that it never, ever happens again. When one considers our fellow citizens suffering for lack of medicines in hospital and the dilapidated infrastructure in our country, it is truly beyond disgusting that some could so blatantly steal money from the public purse.
We must never forget that the truly valuable things in this world are not things, certainly not things you can buy with money. Public service, at any level, should never be about acquiring wealth — legally or illegally. Public service is exactly that: it is a service to the public. Whether you are a junior civil servant in government or a senior politician serving in the upper echelons of government, your position should never be used as a means just to acquire wealth, certainly not to acquire wealth illegally. Nelson Mandela knew this: He showed us that politics should truly be a public service and not self-service; he showed us that politics should be a way to serve the greater good. May his soul rest in peace.