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.
NBC 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.