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Nelson Mandela's real hero was not Gandhi, but Nehru

December 07, 2013 14:06 IST

Compromise, constitutionality, pragmatism and self-respect. These were Mandela’s leadership virtues. For countries such as India and South Africa, these are the qualities leaders must have, says Mihir S Sharma

When Nelson Mandela walked to freedom out of Victor Verster Prison, nobody knew what he looked like.

Of course, through the 1980s, as “Free Nelson Mandela” became the three most common words on the world’s placards, they were often accompanied by a photo of a young bearded man with a broad, pugnacious boxer’s face -- a face that had become instantly recognisable.

But not in the tall, slender, elderly gentleman with grey hair and perfectly-tailored suit who made that walk that sunny Southern Hemisphere afternoon, the glorious blue, green and gold video from the Cape countryside brightened by his broad smile. For a quarter-century, the Apartheid government had forbidden photographs of its most famous prisoner.

Today, as the world celebrates his long life, it is worth remembering just how much of it he lost.

Except, perhaps, Mandela did not think of that period as wasted.

It was in prison that he learned Afrikaans, the better to communicate with the white Afrikaner minority whom he would one day rule. And it was in prison, he said, that he honed his extraordinary talent for compromise, for practicality, and for reconciliation.

Here, in India -- the country he visited first after he walked free of prison, because it had been the strongest supporter of the democracy movement in South Africa, and for reasons more personal to Mandela, too -- he is being remembered as a Gandhian.

Perhaps. But it is not the whole story, not even close.

Gandhi’s greatness did not lie in compromise, or in the give-and-take of politics, or in the pragmatism of choosing the best, perhaps tainted route to a glorious end. Gandhi’s greatness lay in his stubbornness.

Mandela himself more than once would say that his “real hero” was not Gandhi, but Nehru. Many have remarked that he shared many of Nehru’s virtues -- charm, pragmatism, self-confidence, eloquence, respect for difference -- as well as some of Nehru’s flaws -- a sense of superiority, perhaps, and an inability to perfectly subordinate himself to the priorities of the people he led.

Neither was a saint. Mandela himself said he wasn’t, unless a saint was “a sinner who kept trying”.

When a young man at university in the 1940s, he read what he could of Nehru’s writing; as many, including the historian Ramachandra Guha, have noted, the very phrase he is forever associated with -- “there is no easy walk to freedom anywhere”, delivered in an address to an African National Congress session in 1953 -- is taken from a collection of Nehru’s writings Mandela read as a student.

The reason I recall this is not to compare the legacies of these great men, for that diminishes them all, but to point to their methods.

That South Africa did not descend into a maelstrom of racial violence after Apartheid is often considered to be Mandela’s achievement alone. But this is not so. It was because the African National Congress had a progressive, inclusive character; it contained within itself a democratic spirit that animated and was strengthened by its most charismatic leader.

And the great truth of the South African transition is this: it is its bone-deep inclusiveness that permitted the ANC to walk extremists, black and white, back from the brink in the 1990s, to advocate a gradual reform of the white-controlled economy, to create the Rainbow Nation that is today universally admired.

Mandela had a gift for expressing this democratic spirit through grand gestures. Everyone knows how, in 1995, he walked out onto a rugby pitch in front of 65,000 white people to congratulate a World Cup-winning South African team that was the symbol of Afrikaner pride -- while wearing the same green-and-gold sweater as did the Springboks’ captain.

Today I learned another story. The New York Times reporter who covered Mandela’s first press conference recalled how the first question came from Clarence Keyter, the political editor of South African Broadcast Corporation, an institution known for ANC-bashing.

The question was, unsurprisingly, hesitant. The ex-prisoner wasn’t: he walked over to the journalist, shook him by the hand, and thanked Keyter for his radio reports that had told Mandela “what was going on in my country”.

Apparently Keyter was “stunned, had tears welling in his eyes”.

Mandela listened to and valued even those he disagreed with; why did he have so little hate? He told the New York Times why, “Hating clouds the mind. It gets in the way of strategy. Leaders cannot afford to hate.”

Compromise, constitutionality, pragmatism and self-respect. These were Mandela’s leadership virtues. Embracing these virtues means progress is slow, sometimes: South Africa’s economy is still dominated by white-owned business, and inequality is remarkably high. But, for countries such as India and South Africa, these are the qualities leaders must have.

On December 6, as the world remembered Mandela, tens of thousands of Dalits trekked to 'Chaityabhoomi' in suburban Mumbai to remember another man who died on this day, more than half a century ago.

Babasaheb Ambedkar, too, was an icon of pragmatism and compromise, a man who believed that Parliament, Constitution and markets would right a historical wrong, and deliver freedom to a vast oppressed multitude.

December 6 deserves to be a day on which we remember what can be delivered by compromise, inclusiveness, and an absence of hate. Perhaps that can wipe out the stain of things that happened on another December 6, events still celebrated by those who would wish to drag the Republic of India away from these founding virtues.

Image: Artist Aejaz Saiyed works on a poster featuring the portraits of Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi ' Photograph: Amit Dave/ Reuters

Mihir S Sharma
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