Leader, Savior, Terrorist: Nelson Mandela and the Space of Mythic Transformation

Even leaders who have achieved a great deal carry many stories,many projected identies. When they move, like Nelson Mandela, from revolutionary to healer, even after becoming mythic heroes in their own time, they inspire many emotions — fear, joy, envy. They hold a difficult place, leading change in cascading shifts, not just in their own countries or causes.

NBC News interviewed white Africaaners after Mandela’s death, and found respect, fear and disdain.

“Walter Eriksen, a 25-year-old accountant, believes Mandela was a good president — he didn’t try to take revenge against his former oppressors — but that some aspects of his struggle history are overlooked. “He did a lot of positive stuff, but he was still a terrorist.”

The same could be said of great leaders like American revolutionary George Washington. Revolutionaries, before they win their cause, could all be labeled terrorists. A cultural mess becomes a cultural message, then a culture-changing myth – and then part of the historical memory told and retold by the victors. But in South Africa, with change still raw and the government struggling, it is only from the outside that Mandela seems to have achieved everything the ANC set out to accomplish.

99ba8fb9-d524-4b67-9505-f18179d036abNBC interviewed Thys Redelinghuys, 66, a retiree, who said “he has joined in prayers for Mandela and his grieving family during services at the local Dutch Reformed Church. But not all residents of the town were sad when Mandela died, he said, pointing to a right-wing, conservative element, which he estimates at about 10 percent of the population.

Redelinghuys explained the apartheid system as a form of brainwashing. “The thing that we did was wrong, and when [Mandela] came out he made us all free. That is the truth,” he said. Like other Afrikaners, Redelinghuys said that while Mandela was a good leader, he in no way supports his party, the African National Congress, which is still in power. “He was one of the biggest leaders we ever had,” he said. “There’s no leaders at the moment, not on the black side.”

South Africa today is complex. According to the BBC, there are new opportunities and challenges. Robert Zongo, from Gauteng said, “I grew up in Soweto and was about 12 during the 1976 uprising when the police killed all the students. I now sell curios outside the museum here. We are not the generation that will really enjoy the new freedoms but are preparing the ground for our children and future generations.

Leaders like Mandela hold a place in society that makes it easier to do the hard work of growing democracy, preparing the way for future generations to enjoy both prosperity and freedom. In the throes of cultural transformation, transformational leadership makes the pain of change more tolerable, but it does not make that pain go away.


  1. […] of transformation has been created — and the messy process begins. And even in death, Mandela continues to hold a space for coalition, for possibility and for […]


  2. […] build support. He came to embody that goodness for us — we are so hungry for that kind of leader. We get so frustrated with our imperfect leaders, who prove our myths of heroes and demons are media-creations supported by our inner hunger for […]


  3. […] of change and helps people step up. It is about the alignment of inspiration, vision and message. The poet leaders are the great ones, the transformational ones – Gandhi, for example, who integrated great oratory with great activism. If poetry is only a […]


  4. […] and history can put us up on the pedestal without much danger of us falling off. That’s why Nelson Mandela is a leadership saint, but we love/hate Barack Obama. Reader, fill the page with other […]


  5. […] of Suu Kyi’s silence change in the face of this entrenched leadership structure? Or is the assertion of democracy, and the power of one leader representing truth to power really the most transformative resistance to the shadow side of military […]


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