What Mandela meant to African activists

Nelson Mandela'€™s example holds the promise for an Africa that is at peace with itself

December 6, 2013 2:30PM ET
Nelson Mandela (right) with Ethiopian colonel and Oromo rights activist Tadesse Birru in 1962.

I came of age in troubled 1980s Ethiopia under the dictatorship of Mengistu Haile Mariam, right after a generation attempting to bring about social change inspired by Marxism was thinned out. Few in my generation had any appetite for political activism. Even if some of us managed to shed misgivings about the risks of Africa's politics, we had hardly any genuine leaders to look up to. Fewer could identify with the plethora of official leaders paraded on national TV, our only window to the world outside. 

The Pan-African leaders of prior decades, pioneers in the struggle for independence from European colonialism — figures like Kwame Nkrumah, Jomo Kenyatta and Leopold Sedar Senghor — were long forgotten, their performances in office falling woefully short of their lofty ideals. The only leaders that social activists of my generation could remotely identify with were in remote hideouts commanding shadowy rebel troops pitted against the armies of the self-proclaimed Big Men of Africa, whose oversize photos clogged billboards and TV screens.

Other leaders — such as Tadesse Birru, the Ethiopian colonel who inducted Nelson Mandela into armed struggle and a man who would later become a founding member of a movement to emancipate his own people, the Oromo of Ethiopia — were either dead or rotting in some derelict prison without ever being charged or granted their day in court. Few looked up to these leaders anyway. For some, their communist ideologies belonged to a bygone era with its cherished ideals long discredited and abandoned. For many others, these figures had failed to make an impression, largely because of the strictly enforced news blackout. ‎

By the end of the 1980s, a handful of former young revolutionaries long imprisoned for their dissident views won their freedom, only to lose it again in the oblivion of protest politics from which they failed to wean themselves. In the early 1990s, a few wily-eyed rebel leaders emerged victorious from their mountain hideouts sporting bushy beards and trendy coats — men such as Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea and Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia. As quickly as they came, these former freedom fighters went out of favor, proving themselves replicas of the Big Men they helped topple from power. 

The image of one man towered above all others: Mandela. Whereas the fame of other leaders rose and fell with the African seasons, Mandela’s endured and transcended generations. Like a good long-term investment, Mandela's standing appreciated while that of his contemporary African leaders declined or crashed.

Happiest day of our lives

For millions of Africans my age, Mandela’s beaming smile upon his release from Robben Island, the prison where he spent 27 years in solitary confinement, represented the happiest day of our lives. I have since wondered many times what would take a person condemned to life imprisonment to self-assuredly proclaim "I am the captain of my soul" while still in the palm of his jailers.

But we weren't always sure where Mandela would end up. Some were terrified that he, too, would betray his people and global admirers in a bid to cling to power. By stepping down after one term as president and at the peak of his popularity, Mandela defied expectations and broke the mold of Africa's Big Men. 

At times during my two decades of exile far away from Africa, the stream of bad news from home made it hard to be openly proud of my origins. Mandela’s autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom,” became highly prized in my cubicle at work. The courage and composure with which he carried himself throughout his long life — in detention and in freedom — helped me take a fresh look at the relationship between my activism for the Ethiopian diaspora community and the people still tethered to Africa’s soil.‎ Not least, his marital troubles with his second wife, Winnie, shortly after his release from prison enabled me to cope with my own divorce. Such is the mark of great leaders: They lead even in their failures.

Mandela’s life story had a profound hold on my life. In 2009, I joined my 70-year-old father and my brother — both onetime prisoners and Oromo freedom fighters — and my U.S.-born 16-year-old daughter to watch “Invictus,” the movie about Mandela’s efforts to steer post-apartheid South Africa out of stormy waters. By the time the movie came to an end, we could not look into each other’s eyes.

Mandela united South Africa with his unique style of leadership deeply rooted in Africa’s grassroots rather than in corrupt institutions born out of the contitent’s colonial legacy. His principled stewardship of the people’s trust, steely determination, indomitable spirit and unbounded optimism connected generations of men and women throughout Africa and the wide world. He was the leader they all wished they had and the person whose example they aspired to emulate. 

Africa’s truest son

Inevitably, Mandela has his own share of detractors. There are those who fault him for leaving South Africa’s immense wealth in the hands of the white minority and winning only the trappings of freedom for the black majority. Time will tell if his magnanimity to his former enemies will be vindicated. However, to a continent awash with small men pretending to be its Big Men, few would disagree that Mandela exemplified the true path to greatness. As Africa's truest son, the adult in the company of aging leaders who stubbornly refused to grow into manhood, he modeled how sworn enemies could become citizens of a common country together experiencing the joys of freedom.

To societies afflicted with civil strife, Mandela pointed the way out by embracing his enemies. Whereas other African leaders would have simply gotten rid of their opponents by demonizing or incarcerating them under trumped-up charges, he won them over through his regal embrace, graceful charm and candid honesty.

To the vanquished, Mandela showed that a principled, negotiated peace and democracy offered better prospects than a victory begotten through unrequited violence. To the continent's leaders who saw appeasement of global powers as indispensable to govern their countries, he demonstrated the African people’s long desire to see their leaders chart Africa's path on its own. 

Mandela the man is dead. He will surely be missed. But his example will live on, reverberating far and wide as an eternal symbol of Africa's unfulfilled promise, untapped potential and unexplored wisdom.

Hassen Hussein is an assistant professor at St. Mary's University of Minnesota.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

Related News

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter