As South Africans and the world remember the life and legacy of NelsonMandela, his principles and fight for equality are universal. At a time when South Africa was torn apart by racial segregation, President Mandela walked out from 27 years of imprisonment and called for restraint and reconciliation. A man who came to be endeared as Madiba by his own people, he led a country from the brink of strife to build a rainbow nation and Africa’s largest economy. Today, as we Bangladeshis witness our political leadership drag the country through destruction and pain, there is much to learn from the legacy of Nelson Mandela.
Political differences are commonplace in any democratic society. The most constructive public policies are often a product of differences of opinion and ideology of those who have taken the responsibility as public servants. The last few months in Bangladesh have demonstrated that the Awami League and the BNP leaders are blatantly abusing the moral high place that each lay claim to. With the exception of foreign policy, there is little in the way of difference in the policy framework of these two parties. Yet today the differences between our two leaders are at best self-manufactured. The systematic corruption and dynastic style of politics that each accuses the other is a deceit both share equal blame for. A leaf from Mandela’s book would be timely at this juncture when we need Sheikh Hasina OR Khaleda Zia to take the moral high ground. The social oppression and violence between the coloured-majority and white-minority in a South Africa under apartheid was a tangible product of actual difference in principles. Despite being shunned away to Robben Island, Mandela’s first speech in freedom was not to harp upon those seemingly intractable differences on equality and justice. It was instead a call upon all South Africans to stand above their differences of race and prejudice — Bangladeshis today would be saved if a strain of such prudence was shown by either of our leaders.
Madiba was no saint in his own words. “I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying” – is a quote we will hear repeated in these days after his passing. In 1963 before he was imprisoned for high treason and sabotage, Mandela had resorted to violence and was the commander of ANC’s youth armed wing. However, in his 27 years of imprisonment, he was transformed fundamentally. Away from the political strife, he learnt, through studying his jailers closely, that black and white people had far more in common than they had points of difference; he learnt that forgiveness and generosity and, above all, respect were far more powerful tools of political persuasion than any violence or trite humiliation of the opposition.
When Mandela stepped out of prison, he deployed those very learning to reach out to the apartheid leaders who had jailed him, and genuinely gestured for understanding and mutual respect. Once again, Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia ought to take lessons from their own lives and reflect on their short-sighted and destructive political power plays. Most importantly, each of our leaders ought to reflect upon the trust that we have bestowed upon them more than once – a modicum of humility will do our leaders good.
South Africa was on the brink of a civil war with both white and black right-wing extremists fearful of what the fall of the apartheid establishment would bring forth. In such a volatile state, Madiba chose his words wisely. Pointing out that the message that leaders send out has to be a careful one, he demonstrated that incendiary remarks could destabilize the nation. On the other hand, the right gestures and humble outreach would reinforce national unity. True to his principles, Mandela did exactly that. Our political leadership has much to borrow from a simple yet powerful approach to negotiation. Public belittling of each other, personal insults and often unfounded statements do little to create any environment for constructive dialogue. If Sheikh Hasina is confident in her ability to deliver free elections under her leadership, her verbal manifestation betrays her promise. On the other hand, Khaleda Zia’s defence of the people’s freedom and rights are a mockery in light of ordinary people being torched to death on the streets of Dhaka in her party’s name.
At this delicate time in Bangladeshi politics, we must hold our two leaders accountable. A political lineage and stints in power does not absolve our leadership of their moral responsibility to act in the public interest. Both Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia need to reconcile respect for common Bangladeshis with pragmatism and find common ground between our higher values and their aspirations to power. Nelson Mandela, in his powerful motto, Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika or God Bless Africa, embodied a leadership ready to sacrifice his freedom for that of his countrymen. Replicating a degree of such politics is a timely task our leaders can attempt at today.
Safwan Shabab is a Bangladeshi investor currently based in Chicago, USA.