Mandela: An excerpt from Three long goodbyes (December 30, 2012) By Idowu Akinlotan

It was an unplanned but remarkable coincidence around the Christmas holiday period of 2012. Nelson Mandela, 94, Margaret Thatcher, 87, George H. Bush, 88 all found themselves in hospital to receive medical attention. Mandela went in to treat a stubborn lung infection, Bush the Elder to treat a fever and other associated ailments that kept popping up one after the other, as his doctors ruefully observed, and Thatcher to remove a growth on her bladder…

In a way, however, and no matter how much we still want the three leaders with us, I think they have started to say their long goodbyes. They left power a long time ago, and so their final departure may not have the same dramatic impact their exit from office had, but there is no doubt that much more than their countries, the world will be sad to see them go. They were not just iconic, brilliant, prescient and charismatic – Mandela and Thatcher more so – the breadth and content of their leadership, the visionary quality of their administration, and the continuing relevance of their policies, ideas and styles have combined to imbue them with a freshness and permanence that belie their age and health. Thatcher vacated office 22 years ago, Bush Snr 19 years ago, and Mandela 13 years ago. But it seemed like only yesterday…

Mandela’s successors obviously do not take after the great man, perhaps because by having him so close to them, they have taken him and his qualities for granted. Thabo Mbeki, Mandela’s immediate successor, for instance, could hold himself anywhere in the world intellectually, but he exhibited none of the charisma, joie de vivre and general humanism that hallmarked his predecessor’s leadership. In addition, his detached and sometimes woolly style, his seemingly non-partisan politics of expressive sombreness that grated on the ears of the South African rabble contrasted with the welcoming, lively and eccentric style of his successor, Jacob Zuma.

Mandela in office sometimes seemed a paradox, with a half of him oozing gravitas, and the other half skirting close to an inscrutable form of libertinism that made him contradistinctively sociable and prudish. But the real paradox of South African politics is the unexampled fashion Mbeki took Mandela’s cerebral endowment without the redeeming and tempering influence of the great man’s sociableness; and Zuma took and embellished Mandela’s love for life without the catalysing and uplifting influence of Madiba’s deep longing and respect for knowledge…Of the three great world leaders, Mandela is probably the most solid and respected, Thatcher the most impactful and iconoclastic, and Bush the most measured and influential…

With each passing day, Mandela has seemed to loom even larger than most world leaders, becoming an example of a statesman growing in stature and relevance, like a good wine, as his years out of power increase…More and more, as Africa produces mediocre leaders by the dozen, the power and nobility of Mandela are reinforced by his canniness in foreshadowing the problems of multiculturalism in a way even Europe has not come to terms with. Imagine if the superficial Zuma had taken over from F.W. de Klerk! Indeed, the long goodbyes of the three statesmen speak more to the leadership tragedy faced by Africa in general and more poignantly to the appalling refusal, not to say criminal negligence, of Nigerian leaders to learn both from the ancient history of their country and the modern history of the world in relation to the issues and phenomena that drive, sustain and shape great leadership.

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