Posts Tagged ‘Mandela’

Mandela and Kennedy – marriages

December 9, 2013 Leave a comment

I was asked an interesting question about my analysis of Nelson Mandela’s marriage to his second wife, Winnie, and what I thought that failed marriage meant to his legacy. Specifically, Winnie was widely publicized as advocating for Mandela’s freedom and worked hard in the struggle against apartheid during Mandela’s imprisonment. (She appears to have been quite radical in her practices for liberation. See Telegraph article here, and Reuters here.)

It’s been awhile since I read his autobiography so a fresher reader may have a different take than I, but if I recall correctly, Mandela expressed a great deal of regret about the failure of that marriage. His marriage to Winnie was borne in the resistance movement; the struggle was in the marriage’s DNA. The fight for liberty was always Mandela’s mistress and his personal relationships took the brunt of it. This is, in part, what I meant in the previous post: Mandela would sacrifice anything – himself, his freedom, – and anyone for the cause of freedom. Those sacrifices included his marriages and the relationships with his children. Only when he was well advanced in years did some of those relationships find reconciliation.

During Mandela’s imprisonment, Winnie’s advocacy and actions apparently reached some extremes that contradicted Mr. Mandela’s quest for a peaceful liberty for all. Yes, Mr. Mandela had advocated armed resistance against apartheid, and he headed up the ANC’s militarized efforts in the years leading up to his imprisonment. To call him purely a peaceful activist would be inaccurate. But it seems as though he favored peaceful means to achieve freedom and eschewed the inter-African conflicts among other black Africans that Winnie became involved in through the 1980s and 1990s. Details here, here, here, here, and here.

Mandela spoke very highly of Winnie in his autobiography. But as I read the account, she was always more of his “comrade in arms” than his wife. This may not be fair, and it may not be how she viewed the marriage, but that’s the sense I got from his story. Her actions during his imprisonment show, at a minimum, she was no shrinking daisy; she was an aggressive advocate for liberation, with no apparent fear from violent means. The distance of his imprisonment and the eventual release drove a separation that appears to have been insurmountable. I suspect that her means of pursuing liberty also ran against Mr. Mandela’s tastes, but that their marriage was politically useful for both of them until it was finally dissolved after his election.

Rabbit trail ahead: There is another important distinction worth bearing out. We in a non-tribal Western culture view marriage differently I think than do many indigenous cultures. To understand Mandela’s story requires a reach into a culture that many Anglos don’t relate to. The tribal indigenous cultures of Africa in the mid 20th century are not the same as the urban cultures in Africa today, nor are they the experience of the diverse peoples who comprise western Europe or the United States. The native tribes are indeed very diverse among the various tribes, but the experiences, mores, perspectives on relationships, elevation of children, and many other perspectives are simply different due to time and place.

I don’t know what this means in the context of Mandela’s marriages. He was a highly educated and brilliant man. He was a professional, an amazing debater, and one of the most thoughtful icons of our time. Mandela was, I think, a once-in-a-generation leader. To assume he would view marriages and other interpersonal relationships the same way as we would risks superimposing a personal moral judgement on someone whose culture many of us can’t fully appreciate. It would be much like explaining to an indigenous Chinese person that they have the inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Without first-hand experience inside another culture, it’s really hard to make value statements that don’t belie our personal biases.

In the previous Mandela-Kennedy post I referenced that both had great flaws. Looking back I realize that this indeed belies my personal Western bias. But I think there is a big difference in the “failed” marriages of Mandela and the historical view that Kennedy was a poor husband. Although I believe that both men were charismatic leaders who were, by many accounts, catalysts for great change, I haven’t heard stories of Mandela being a philanderer like the stories I’ve heard of Kennedy. Again, I think Mandela’s “mistress” was the struggle to end apartheid, not a physical “other woman.” I’d argue that by any account, Mandela’s mistress was far nobler than any Kennedy ever had.
(By the way, comments are always welcome. I crave thoughtful conversation – virtual or real – when proffered with an open mind.)

Thoughts on Mandela, Kennedy

December 5, 2013 Leave a comment

I was at the Orlando airport drinking pints with a friend when I learned Nelson Mandela died. I had the good fortune to go to South Africa a little over a year ago on business and enjoyed an off afternoon taking in Robben Island. Moved by that experience I picked up a copy of Mandela’s autobiography at the Robben Island bookstore and worked my way through it over the following month.

Mandela’s life was one that humbles the proud, privileged, and self-important. He was a man of humble beginnings who made his way to the city and became a practicing lawyer in Johannesburg as the greatest era of apartheid persecution swelled to consume a nation. He made tremendous sacrifices – many that most of us would deign to make – out of his devotion to liberty for black Africa and to reject injustice. His sacrifices included two marriages and his relationship with nearly all who loved him, but his legacy of those individual sacrifices and the individual sacrifices of others who joined him in the cause of freedom brought a new liberty and a measure of democracy to an oppressed indigenous people.

South Africa has yet to get its feet firmly beneath its nascent democracy. Nearly 20 years in, the nation has foundered in gaining traction and casting off a resentment-based new nepotism that often accompanies a sudden change of fortune and the overturning of a power pyramid. Those previously on the bottom – black Africa – suddenly found themselves on top of the pile, but only as represented by a handful of insiders. In recent years those insiders proved that they are capable of substantial corruption and pocket-lining, suppressing free speech and silencing their critics. The acute pain of the past and solidarity of the movement that brought liberty has obviously faded in the past two decades. The generation has aged and polarized, and the youth who didn’t live the revolution lack personal context and a passion to see the revolution through to completion.

“Madiba”, as his friends called him, was the strongest unifying persona of the era that saw a nation cast off oppression and victimization of native peoples. As a lover of South Africa and a respecter of Nelson Mandela, I fear that the nation will continue to suffer in mediocrity, unmet needs, and broken promises now that Mandela is gone. Like the revolution, his memory and legacy will fade unless a younger generation rises up to finish lifting South Africa to full freedom for all.

I’m sure I’m a bit Pollyannaish on Mandela. He had his detractors, and I’m not South African. I’m perhaps a little more educated than most on the country’s history, but I may be overstepping the bounds of my knowledge or any right to proffer an opinion on South African politics, Nelson Mandela’s legacy, or the progeny of the final end of apartheid. But I see Mandela’s story in a slightly different – and more American – context, too.

On November 22 of this year we observed the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Born of great wealth, privilege, and personal connections, Kennedy reshaped the political culture within the United States. At a minimum, he represented a generational and technological shift in our Presidency. The first President to be elected who was born in the 20th century, he was also the first of a new “television generation.” Although he was born into great wealth, he served the U.S. in war and bore injuries that would follow him for the rest of his life. He was also an Irish Catholic in a generation when neither was cool.

Although his detractors are many, history generally remembers Kennedy very fondly, as the beginning of a new era. He didn’t deliver America from a regime of great oppression and didn’t make anywhere near the personal sacrifices Mandela made. But maybe like Mandela, his legacy marked a turning point in history. There were many intervening influences but there may be some merit to an argument that Kennedy’s Presidency laid the groundwork for an era of progressive civil rights that benefited black Americans, and has ultimately increased the rights of women, Native Americans, and the LGBT community today.

I write this as one who is a generation removed from Kennedy’s legacy. My parents were 20 and 17 when Kennedy was killed; I wasn’t born for nearly another decade after Dealey Plaza. My only reference is what I’ve learned from them and from the Kennedy legacy built up in our popular culture and literature. Like the youth who have grown up in a post-apartheid South Africa I can only piece together my model of Kennedy from the experiences, memories, and biases of forebears.

Maybe like Kennedy, the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela will similarly serve as a turning point in South African history. Will his legacy spark a generation that pursues liberty and progressive thought? In 50 years will we see a South Africa that has cast off nepotism and the pursuit of self interest?

Don’t hear (or read) what I’m not saying. American culture and politics are deeply flawed – some say broken. Many believe that progressive thought has exceeded moral bounds and I’m not in a position to argue those points right now. The point I’m making is that Kennedy marked a big shift in how a generation addressed civil rights of those traditionally outside the power structure. I will be interested to see if Mandela does the same for South Africa.

All great leaders have great flaws; Kennedy and Mandela were no exceptions. They were human, and in many ways exhibited the same selfishness and failures of integrity that we all face in our varying degrees at different times in our lives. And these two are likely far more different than they are similar; I get that. But I think that in a way, each of them has the potential to mark a turning point for a nation.

Another seed of a thought: Are leaders the catalysts of change, or are they markers of a greater change waiting to be made? Are they the genesis of a wave, or are they merely the break as the wave builds and rolls? Are they the drivers, or are they just the willing ones who sense the building force, give it voice, and sacrifice themselves (and others) to bring the wave to shore?

Finding buddies in unexpected places

November 1, 2012 1 comment

I had been dreading my trip to South Africa for a few reasons:

  • I had just traveled internationally about a month prior and I really don’t like flights that last more than 3 hours. To get to Cape Town I had a 9-hour flight to London, followed by a 7+ hour layover, followed by a 12-hour flight from London to Cape Town. And although the flight crew on British Airways was great, the plane that took us from London to South Africa was very tired.
  • It’s a very busy time of year for me work-wise. It’s year-end budget and strategy prep time and I have tons to do.
  • Most of all, my family was unable to come with me due to school commitments on their end.

So as a result, I really hadn’t wanted to make the trip but felt that it is my obligation to personally do the due diligence on the company based here that we are looking to do business with. But as happens sometimes in life, I received a very pleasant surprise…I came to love Cape Town in less than a day.

Cape Town is beautiful, and the people are very friendly. I arrived in Cape Town shortly after 7:15 this morning local time (which is 8 hours ahead of Colorado, by the way) and made my way through immigration and customs. My friends and coworkers had arrived late the night before and were gracious enough to pick me up at the airport. After dropping my bags at the hotel we went out for the day to try and walk off the jet lag and high altitude edema in my legs.
We wandered around a local artisans’ market right outside our hotel and then grabbed one of those double-decker tour buses for a city tour. We hit nearly 20 sites along the way and got a good overview of Cape Town and its history. We hopped off the bus for an hour or so and took a gondola lift up to the top of Table Mountain, the highest point in Cape Town (maybe in all of South Africa, I don’t remember).
The ride up Table Mountain reminded me of the gondola we took in Santorini, but it was one big car and the floor rotated as the gondola rose and descended. (There was also little to no graffiti anywhere to be found. NOT the case in Greece!) The views from atop Table Mountain were spectacular! I only had my iPhone at the time so the photos are pretty crappy. But you get the idea.
After the Table Mountain gondola and back on the bus I started dozing off a bit as we traversed the coastline.  I missed a lot of the substantive information about the beaches but at one point I specifically remembered hearing something about my favorite animal – penguins! Come to find out, there is a colony of African Penguins on the tip of the cape on a beach called The Boulders in Simon’s Town. My friends are generally animal lovers so they were game to try and find the penguin colony.
Although road construction and heavy traffic made what should have been a 20 minute drive an hour or longer (more napping in the back seat for me!), it was well worth it. By the time we got to The Boulders the wind was up and the surf was very choppy. The water is also quite cold due to the Cape’s relative proximity to Antarctica. We followed signs to “Penguin Viewing” and stumbled across all these little guys just hanging out near the surf!
We took lots of photos and hung out with the penguins a bit, and then retired to dinner. After a great dinner of angel fish and rice (and beer) it was back to the car (more napping). Then back to the hotel for a much-needed shower and some rest.
Tomorrow we will be getting ready for meetings but will be moving from this hotel to a hotel outside of the city for 2 days as we do our final meeting prep. There will be some “play” involved in that, too, but I have a lot of work to do over the next few days of meetings.
All told, I was dreading the trip to South Africa because I don’t have my wife and girls here, because it’s a very busy time of year both with work and with family things, and because it’s just so darn far to get here. But I discovered a new wonderful place and will have to bring my family back here someday.
Love to all,