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Encounters with Madiba

As South Africa and the world mark the 100th anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s birth, I am reposting a piece I wrote on the occasion of his death in 2013.

I never met Nelson Mandela personally but our paths crossed remotely, just like the paths of millions of people the world over have crossed with the man’s, in particular as they now mourn his passing and celebrate his accomplishments. In my case, the encounters were three.

In the early 1990s, I became interested in scenario-planning. Up to that point, it had mainly been used as a vehicle for helping corporate actors deal with complexity. The underlying idea is that we humans are not very good at understanding what may happen next and that our primary defence against this failing is to attempt to understand the various ways the present can become the future. In the tumultuous South Africa of the early 1990s, a scenario-planning exercise was launched in an effort to enrich the then current debate about how this young, multiracial democracy with its huge historical burden of prejudice and oppression might move forward.

The Mont Fleur exercise, as it was called, generated four scenarios. One projected a South Africa in which the population as a whole would rise through racial tolerance and an extension of the capitalist system to include all of the country’s people. This, as The Economist has so eloquently explained in its homage to Mandela, is the course that he took when he became President, four years after his release from 27 years of incarceration in 1990. What has happened since in South Africa has been from perfect but just think about how it might have evolved otherwise.

My second remote encounter with Mandela took place on my first mission to South Africa in 2009. I took a few days off to see what I could of this wonderful country. One of my most memorable moments was my visit to the Gandhi museum, housed in a modest dwelling where Gandhi himself had lived during his time in South Africa. The museum was replete with photos documenting Gandhi’s efforts in South Africa to defend, peacefully, the rights of the un-enfranchised workers from the South Asia sub-continent. He was jailed for his efforts, just like Mandela. He would return to his native India to mount his non-violent campaign to lead the colossal change in his country from empirical independency to sovereign state.

Gandhi, of course, also left a legacy with huge political implications. Nelson Mandela visited the Gandhi Museum. So did Barack Obama. I believe that the recent opening in US-Iranian relations that President Obama has engineered has been inspired, at least in part, by Nelson Mandela’s message about the need to reach out to one’s foes. I would say the same of the American’s President’s historic handshake with Cuban President Raul Castro.

My third remote encounter with Mandela came in 2008. In January of that year, I went to the Central African Republic (CAR) as a member of a team organized by the Organisation for Economic Development and Cooperation (OECD), the leading intergovernmental think tank on a range of governance issues for mature democracies and emerging ones that seek to emulate them. The mission’s assignment was to roll out the OECD approach to the reform of security systems in fragile and post-conflict states. Later seconded to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), I then worked with a distinguished group of people from all walks of life in CAR to prepare a national conference that was supposed to pave the way for a comprehensive programme for implementing security sector reform (SSR) in CAR.

The day before my departure from CAR I was summoned to the Presidential place for an audience with the then President Bozizé. I laid out my vision for SSR in CAR to the President, which for reasons to complex to go into here was not to be implemented.

I never returned to CAR but I often remember that scene with the CAR Chief of State. Behind the President, perched on his throne, was a life-size photo of him shaking hands with Nelson Mandela, both smiling broadly. Did this mean that the CAR President saw himself as a Central African Mandela? Or was this a subterfuge designed to bring more donor resources into the country, which could then be used by the CAR elite based in the capital, Bangui, to better rob resource-rich CAR of its plentiful natural wealth?

I hope to think that Bozizé had the former in mind. Unfortunately, if this was his intent, he failed, at least in part because he was let down by the International Community. That said, it is not all clear what role the deposed CAR President may now be playing in his beleaguered country. If you have been following media reports about the burgeoning catastrophe in CAR, you know it needs a Nelson Mandela, and quickly.

Nelson Mandela’s story is uplifting, compelling and transformational. He was a leader, capable of thinking though the options and deciding on a course that was not necessarily shared by his confreres. He took inspiration from, and transferred inspiration to, other leaders who then became inspirations to still others. He is the reluctant hero of our times.

The Kim-Jong-Uns, Mugabes and Putins of this world of should take note. They can go down in history as enemies of openness, tolerance and fairness. Or they can use their power and influence to effect the far-reaching changes that their countries require.

Madiba is watching.

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