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Nelson Mandela and International Good Governance Insights

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Laila El Baradei
April 22, 2019

Nelson Mandela is a legend. Recently I went to South Africa with a group of graduate students. I also read through Nelson Mandela’s auto biography and visited the Mandela Legacy Foundation, established by a few of his children and grandchildren. Through all this a number of loud lessons learnt and useful insights came to the fore. I realized that Mandela’s recipe for saving his country from a potentially devastating civil war may be directly related to what good governance is all about and what we are trying to achieve at our current day and time through the Sustainable Development Goals.

We have to remember that the Apartheid system in South Africa continued until 1994 and the rest of the world was keeping silent about it. Mandela spent nearly 27 years in prison, mostly in a cell wherein he could not even spread his body straight. But this lifetime imprisonment did not prevent him from assuming public office and becoming President of the Republic when he won the elections in 1994. Amazingly, after this long number of years in imprisonment, he managed to deal with his former oppressors and implement the famous reconciliation act where they were able to forgive, but not forget. Mandela believed that if you cannot forgive and continue to carry animosity and hatred in your heart, you will be harming yourself more than anybody else. You will not be able to move on with your life. However, not all governments, and not all citizens around the globe seem to be able to heed Mandela’s lessons.

Divisions within a nation may take place for many reasons, whether intentionally or unintentionally, and may continue for decades without governments being capable, or sometimes fully willing, to reach resolutions. Many examples abound, including the tensions between the Protestants and Catholics that started out as a political conflict and went on for decades in Northern Ireland. Also included is the conflict between the Sunnis and Shias in Iraq and Syria, the conflict amongst various religious and ethnic groups in Lebanon, the conflict between the Tutsis and Hutus in Rwanda that led to a massive genocide in the mid-nineties and conflict amongst various tribal groups in Southern Sudan. The list goes on. 

South Africa and many other countries around the world have managed at least to end the flagrant type of racial discrimination. What remains are other types and forms of discrimination and inequities committed against global citizens, that if compared to the Apartheid system, may be considered subtler, but not necessarily less painful. If we look around us, we need to re-examine social inequities between the rich and poor and between the haves and the have-nots. We need to question the whole issue with international migrants and both internally and externally displaced citizens and war victims. What with President Trump at the beginning of 2019 not caring about the shut down of the United States government until his funding request for building a wall on the borders between the United States and Mexico gets approved! What with migrant children getting separated from their families on purpose along those borders. What with the rising evidence for expansion of Islamophobia and Xenophobia across continents with the latest being a terrorist act in peaceful New Zealand against a group of Muslims performing their prayers, and the perpetrator flagrantly videoing and sharing his terrorist deed through social media! These are just a few indicators that we definitely need to dwell further on Mandela’s legacy.

Some of Mandela’s life lessons are those expressed in quotations from his book, The Long Road to Freedom. I chose only three striking quotations to reflect on how they are linked to our current understanding of what good governance is all about.

  • “To be free Is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” This points to the main dimensions of good governance , which are centered on the importance of rule of law, guaranteeing means for expressing citizens’ voice, holding government accountable, realizing political stability and making sure there is no violence.  
  • “A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.” This is a reminder to all about the need to do better in poverty alleviation, in social equity, fighting corruption and in realizing a higher degree of effectiveness for our government organizations. Most of these aspirations are closely linked to the Sustainable Development Goals as well.
  •  “I always knew that deep down in every human heart, there is mercy and generosity.” This final quotation may be the secret recipe of Mandela which enabled him to let go and move on after the 27 years he spent in prison; this conviction that within each human being there is something positive that can be capitalized upon so that we can overcome all our internal struggles and fights for the good of our nations. 

Mandela’s thinking and actions were way ahead of his time. Why can’t we find a model similar to that of South Africa and Nelson Mandela’s? I wish we could. The world would definitely be a much better place.


Author: Laila El Baradei, is a Professor of Public Administration, the School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, at the American University in Cairo, Egypt. Currently she is directing the ‘Public Policy Hub’ project with the purpose of building the capacity of young graduate students and alumni in conducting evidence based policy research and in effectively communicating finding to stakeholders in a creative manner, hence the motto of the project is: “Where Rigor Meets Creativity”.

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