Mandela and the art of resignation
Mandela was as much the father of his country as any of America’s founding fathers. Like George Washington, Mandela knew that the most important step was often a step away from power. His imprisonment was involuntary, but after being released from prison he at first deferred to ANC president-in-exile Oliver Tambo; that won him even more authority. And after a single five-year term as president, Mandela stepped down. Even when his successor Thabo Mbeki diverged from what Mandela might have done, on dealing with the AIDS crisis for example, Mandela was restrained. Garry Wills once wrote of George Washington that he turned resignation into “an act of pedagogical theater” and called America’s first president “a virtuoso of resignations.” So was Mandela.
Such people have been very rare in post-colonial Africa, whose first decades had been marred by coups, crooks, dictators and a few revolutionary-era figures who hung on long after demonstrating their inability to govern. I wrote about some of these figures during the 1980s. Some were corrupt like Mobutu Sese Seko, who stashed well over $1 billion in Switzerland and France. Others, like any number of Nigerian military leaders, preferred London for their money. There were independence-era leaders who were dogmatic. Then there was the perhaps less corrupt but simply inept Kenneth Kaunda, still surrounded by books on Marxism in his office when I met him in 1985. Many of these leaders established one-party states.
But Mandela understood the importance of political pluralism. He did not arrest his critics. He fully grasped the importance of governing – and not governing.