We were deeply saddened, like much of the rest of the world, to read about the death of Nelson Mandela. When he began his ‘long walk to freedom’, both of us were teenagers, and his story – of strength, compassion, sacrifice, compromise and hope – inspired us on the paths that eventually led us to the Developmental Leadership Program.
DLP’s research over the years has inevitably looked at Mandela’s leadership – from Jo-Ansie van Wyk’s study of the ANC, business and development, to Monique Theron’s work on African heads of state. But Madiba was not just a ‘big man’ of history; he was the embodiment of what we call ‘developmental leadership’. He used his power and authority in order to mobilise people and resources for developmental ends, overcoming many deeply entrenched collective action problems. He didn’t simply rule but instead brought people together in coalitions for change and, in doing so, changed the world.
There are a small number of former leaders who we – as a global family – revere, rather than simply remember, for their willingness to fight long and hard to help end inequality. They privileged the poor and the disadvantaged, and they did so for as long as they could. They articulated the hopes of the millions.
Our current leaders could well learn this lesson. Inequality in South Africa is rising, a potential threat to Mandela’s legacy there; around the world, inequality has never been so stark and threatens existing progress on poverty reduction. Our leaders should celebrate Mandela’s life not through words but through deeds, and give us back the hope we all felt when we saw him leave prison almost 25 years ago. He deserves no less