Mandela’s Surprising Legacy

Today the world woke up to the news that a great leader no longer is, Nelson Mandela. I post here an extra article to remember him, an excerpt from my book The Paradox of Happiness which reflects on an aspect of his life legacy.

nelson mandela smile

“A young man set himself on fire, and nobody could have foreseen the magnitude of the consequences. A wave of protests took multitudes to the streets not only in Tunisia, but also in the neighboring Egypt in 2011. And in both countries, long-time dictators finally gave in. Multitudes also opposed regimes in Libya, Syria, Bahrain, and Yemen, only to receive cruel responses from their governments. Political instability hit Morocco, Lebanon, Jordan, and Oman. At the height of the crisis, it could not be foreseen the next focal points of protests.

One of the most dramatic events of the early twenty-first century has been the wave of revolutions that shook regimes and dethroned governments in North Africa and the Middle East, the Arab Spring. Protestors took the streets against regimes in varied contexts and with different kinds of proposals, but there was an interesting common factor: the number of years the leaders of those countries had been in power. Hosni Mubarak, for example, had been president of Egypt for thirty years when he finally left office in 2011. In 2011, Ben Ali had been in power for twenty-three years in Tunisia; Ali Abdullah Saleh had ruled for thirty-three years in Yemen; Gaddafi had held power for forty-one years in Libya. Most of these countries were ruled for decades by the same leaders.

In South Africa, however, Nelson Mandela left behind a different kind of legacy. His presidency was celebrated as the first major victory for the majority black population, and he received the Nobel Peace Prize. But maybe Mandela’s most enduring legacy—larger than any feat as president—will be that he left power voluntarily. Mandela could have stayed for decades as president—he was beloved widely in South Africa and had enormous global support. But had he remained in power, in the end he would have been just one more African dictator. Mandela would be the first example in establishing a lasting democratic regime: A leader should leave office and make way for a new president to be elected.

Decades or generations later, the words of a leader sound more and more distant. His feats seem more and more remote. But the model left by a Mubarak or a Mandala makes all the difference. It guides, encourages, energizes, and inspires followers decades after their days of glory.”

René Breuel


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