“It was not he who sought glory, it was glory that sought him.” Writing in O Globo, Fernando Henrique Cardoso reflects on what made Nelson Mandela a unique and inspiring leader.
The entire world mourns the death of Nelson Mandela. For us Brazilians his actions went beyond a call for the consolidation of an independent nation, representing the struggle for the liberation of human beings from the bonds of both of racism and revenge. His life was surrounded by an aura of grandeur, of decency and of humility. No one better defined the relationship between Mandela and his contemporaries than his compatriot Mamphela Ramphele: "It was not he who sought glory, it was glory that sought him."
I met with Mandela on several occasions. The first was in 1995, two years after he was elected President of South Africa and the last was in May 2010. Mandela formed a group, The Elders – former leaders willing to continue the struggle for peace and for decency in the world – and was generous enough to include me among the ten chosen leaders. He dined with us at our meeting in May 2010 in Johannesburg, even though he was already weakened by age and by the marks of so many years of struggle and suffering. He remained lucid and aware of the tragedies in the world, especially those happening in Africa.
His simplicity, and at the same time the personal magnetism that marked his presence, left strong impressions on those who came into contact with him. There are several ways for a leader to demonstrate their ability to guide and to command. Some exhibit energy and boldness. Others possess a certain demagogy and proximity to those being ruled. There are also those who use the intellectual and emotional persuasion of words in order to be heard. Mandela dispensed all of this: the presence of this slender, elegant, genteel man, with a voice varying from hoarse to strident, striking, made his gestures and his words almost saintly. Without the need for him to remind us, his every move brought to the audience's mind – whether one person or a crowd – the past of a fighter who did not flee the challenges of armed struggle, a lawyer who embraced the cause of the humiliated and the subjugated, the prisoner who held himself equal to others in the heavy toil of breaking stones, the politician who, although still not released, refused to compromise, but as soon as he had a free voice preached unequivocal reconciliation.
Such was the impression of being almost superhuman that Mandela left amongst those around him or that knew of his actions and words, that he himself was unnerved. In the last book that he published, Conversations with Myself (which I had the honour to receive from the hands of Graça Machel, with a dedication from the author, when she came to São Paulo last year to inaugurate the Centre that bears the name of someone who was her friend and my wife, Ruth Cardoso), Mandela warns of the errors that he made and rejects the pedestal on which almost all have placed him: "The trouble, of course, is that most successful men are prone to some form of vanity. There comes a stage in their lives when they consider it permissible to be egotistic and to brag to the public at large about their unique achievements." (p 6)
Contrary to this posture, Mandela leaves a different message. There is a stage in life in which every social reformer resorts to thunderous platforms as a way of apologising for ill-digested fragments of information that have accumulated in their mind, as if it were an attempt to "impress the crowds rather than to start a calm and simple exposition of principles and ideas whose universal truth is made evident by personal experience and deeper study." (p 45)
He adds, "I have been victim of the weakness of my own generation not once but a hundred times. I must be frank and tell you that when I look back at some of my early writings and speeches I am appalled by their pedantry, artificiality and lack of originality. The urge to impress and advertise is clearly noticeable." (p 45)
In his later years, he stated calmly: "I don’t want to incite the crowd. I want the crowd to understand what we are doing and I want to infuse a spirit of reconciliation to them." (p 326)
There is no need to add anything to record the greatness of someone who knew how to show his people and all of us the path to sincerity, brotherhood and the continuous struggle for equality with a simplicity that can only be praised. We mourn his death, we guard his testimony and his lessons.