Mandela should be studied in schools

Updated: 2013-12-13 06:43

By Paul Surtees (HK Edition)

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An old man dies in Africa, and the world grieves. In this troubled world, people are taking time to reflect on the significance of his extraordinary life.

Through sheer willpower, political wisdom, a sense of justice and great moral courage, he was able to tear down the walls of apartheid, and achieved this against seemingly overwhelming odds.

The world, not just South Africa, where he was to become its first black president after spending 27 years in prison for wanting all people to be equal regardless of color, will not be the same after his fine example of statesmanship. Instead of the expected bloodbath that some commentators predicted after he took office, Mandela was able to reconcile the country through personal forgiveness of the very people who had once persecuted and incarcerated him.

As US President Barack Obama recently said, Nelson Mandela now belongs not just to our age, but to all ages. We can regard him as similar in stature to other modern saintly figures, such as Mahatma Gandhi who helped make India free through non-violent resistance and Mother Teresa, who served the poorest of Calcutta. Obama admitted to being inspired by Mandela; surely Hong Kong's public figures and generations of young people can also learn from his example.

Mandela should be studied in schools

Mandela lived through times of great strife at home and abroad. It is his legacy of extraordinary moral and physical courage which makes him universally admired. He was magnanimous in victory, even including some of his former enemies in his government. The freedom and equality he won for people did not come easily.

It was his generation's misfortune to live under a vile and manifestly unjust racially segregated regime, which condemned him to a prison cell for more than a third of his adult life. Being unjustly locked up in prison for most of the prime years of his adult life would make most men bitter. Instead, once in power, he rejected any notions of taking revenge on his captors. He instead wasted no time working hard for reconciliation and healing the deep wounds in his country's national psyche. He even appointed former enemies to ministerial posts in his government of national unity.

The abominable injustice of apartheid was abolished under his leadership, but without the violent racial strife predicted by many. In his later decades, he also did much to try to bring peace to other trouble spots, and to aid worthy causes, in Africa and globally.

A study of his life would make for a very good lesson in leadership for our politicians and other public figures and ethics for Hong Kong students.

The challenge for national leaders throughout Africa - and around the globe - will be to behave in a way which always puts their citizens first, as Mandela did, and to rise above petty squabbles, narrow self interest and jealousies. Few leaders, if any, in Africa or elsewhere can readily fill his giant shoes. But just making an effort to emulate him would be a tribute to his lasting legacy.

The author is a Hong Kong-based commentator, university lecturer and founder of the Hong Kong branch of the Royal Over-Seas League. Nelson Mandela was an international member of that pan-Commonwealth club.

(HK Edition 12/13/2013 page9)