Mandela’s Ubuntu: We Are Human Only Through the Humanity of Others

Nelson Mandela

It’s not until page 227 of his new book Mandela’s Way: Fifteen Lessons on Life, Love, and Courage in the final chapter “Mandela’s Gift,” that Richard Stengel reveals that Rolihlahla, an African name which means Tree Shaker, is Mandela’s real first name. (Rolihlahla is now his middle name.) But, more importantly, we learn the 15 powerful principles and lessons which are relevant to his life and were honed during 27 years in a South African prison.

In the preface, Mandela writes, “In Africa there is a concept known as ‘ubuntu’ – the profound sense that we are human only through the humanity of others; if we are to accomplish anything in this life it will in equal measure be due to the work and achievements of others.”

Born in 1918, Mandela learned ubuntu first hand. Logically, Barack Obama, even though born in 1961 (three years before Mandela began his prison term) and whose own father was born and raised in Kenya, would know the concept of ubuntu. In today’s Washington DC, the closest thing we have to ubuntu would be Barack’s work towards bipartisanship and, due to that being withheld, Barack, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid finally getting the Democrats together.

In Barack’s Dreams from my Father, we learn of his first job in Chicago as a community organizer and facing volunteers who want to quit. Said one, “We’ve all been at this for two years and we have nothing to show for it.” Barack answered, “You know I didn’t come here ‘cause I needed a job. I came here ‘cause I was told that there were some people who were serious about doing something to change their neighborhoods. I don’t care what’s happened in the past. I know that I’m here, and committed to working with you. If there’s a problem, then will fix it.” They all decided to stay. Barack then set about building a sense of community, getting skeptics and adversaries to sit down with each other while inspiring everyone to work towards common goals. They worked together long and hard, in the spirit of ubuntu, and in the end all were successful. While Barack shared equally in the achievement, he personally gained attention from neighborhood leaders and the political establishment.

Stengel relates Mandela’s leadership style and philosophy in Lesson 3, “Leading from the Front, meaning, “…being accountable…if he (a leader) makes a decision on his own, he will bear the consequences. If he is wrong…you know who to blame.” Sometimes Mandela took those words in a literal sense as when he was about to enter prison, “He stepped to the front of the line…under the stares and taunts of the guards, in order to show the others how to react.” Further, “…leading from the front also meant seizing the initiative.” During the recent healthcare debate, it was in January, 2010, that headlines announced, “Obama seizes reins in daylong House-Senate healthcare meeting.” The final healthcare push was on.

Mandela’s Lesson 4, “Leading from the Back.” A big question during the healthcare debate was why Barack insisted on support from Republicans. Why sacrifice important healthcare reform principles in the name of bipartisanship? Stengel wrote, “Since boyhood Mandela understood that collective leadership was about two things: the greater wisdom of the group compared to the individual, and the greater investment of the group in any result achieved by consensus.”

Barack’s detractors would probably call that communism!

However, it’s more apt to compare Barack’s leadership style on healthcare to America’s Founding Fathers working together on our nation’s constitution. The Founding Fathers were equals coming from the soon-to-be states. All needed to be included. With healthcare, Barack understood the principle to include everyone, the Senate and House, Republican and Democrat, all were considered leaders with important constituents and concerns. They then tried to work together for the common good. If this makes Barack and the Founding Fathers communists, then Barack’s critics don’t understand America’s exceptionalism!

Stengel than advances another place from which a person can lead, “the sidelines.”

When Mandela left office in 1999 he wanted a quiet retirement but that didn’t happen due to his successor Thabo Mbeki’s mishandling of South Africa’s HIV/AIDS crisis. In 2002 at the Durban AIDS Conference, Mandela warned, “…In the face of the grave threat posed by HIV/AIDS, we have to rise above our differences and combine our efforts to save our people. History will judge us harshly if we fail to do so now…Let us not equivocate…AIDS today in Africa is claiming more lives than the sum total of all wars, famines and floods, and the ravages of such deadly diseases as malaria.” (In 2005, Mandela’s only surviving son died from the complications of HIV/AIDS.)

For the 2006 World AIDS Day Conference, Barack said, “We are all sick because of AIDS – and we are all tested by this crisis. It is a test not only of our willingness to respond, but of our ability to look past the artificial divisions and debates…When you go to places like Africa and you see this problem up close, you realize that it’s not a question of either treatment or prevention…It is not an issue of either science or values…there must also be a change in hearts and minds; in cultures and attitudes…(the fight against) AIDS must be an all-hands-on-deck effort.”

carl-matthes.jpg“Mandela’s Way” is about life and one’s reaction to it. It demonstrates the need for us to understand our own motivations and the need for us to develop and articulate our own sense of Life, Love and Courage. The almost three years it took for Richard Stengel to chronicle Nelson Mandela’s life’s lessons and then condense it to enjoyable readable form, makes this book indispensable.

Mandela’s Way: Fifteen Lessons on Life, Love, and Courage
Richard Stengel, Editor Time Magazine and author of Mandela’s biography Long Walk to Freedom
Preface by Nelson Mandela
2010, Crown Publishers, 256 pages.

Carl Matthes


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