What Happens When Mandela… Dies?

MandelaMandela is 94 years old.

Ninety Four.

The average life span for a South African male is 50.43 years. This means that Mandela, in spite of being jailed, antagonized, criticized, targeted… and driving while black racially profiled, managed to live almost 44 years longer than what was expected of him.

Mandela is iconic. If he had died in 1993, just the memory of his fight would have followed him after his death like Biggie and Aaliayah. We would have had all kinds of great collabo songs from Bono and prince and Michael Jackson. We would have appreciated his selflessness just the same. The fact that he got to live longer is really just a bonus. We know how the CIA feels about black leadership on the Continent (ahemNKRUMAHahem) and it is amazing to see the legacy he left on the world as it relates to racial equality and harmony.

Mandela is a hero. Heroes NEVER die.

I recently read a paper published from Harvard Kennedy School about Heroic Leadership. In it, Matt Andrews argues that the current narrative in development literature that says countries need heroic leaders (read: benevolent dictators) to develop is problematic. Andrews says this is true for three reasons(my loose interpretation):teamworkbetter

  1. There haven’t been any new heroes in a long time and if we accept this narrative then countries may as well wait for the second coming of Christ if they expect any type of respite…
  2. Heroic leaders are like a really good Arnold palmer: they turn lemons to lemonade but they were also sitting in some iced… tea.  OK, that sounded better in my head— the point is ‘…[they are] at least as much the product of their contexts as they turned out to be the shapers’
  3. Leaders are not ‘single- agent autocrats’— basically the Beyonce’s of the world are only as good as their make-up artists, choreographers, vocal instructors, ghost writers, producers, famous husband and helicopter father family.

I think anyone would agree with these points. He goes on to mention how great leaders pick a great team of people to carry out the minutiae of tasks needed to to reach grandiose goals like our Millenium Development Goals (I will hold my tongue on this here). He points out that the stars need to be aligned in a way that allows for such a leader to first be forged and then to emerge and execute their mission successfully.

Here is my problem:

  1. To the point of there not being any new heroes… one must ask why? There have certainly been an array of awesomely gruesome events in recent history that would demand one rise from the ashes and unite people under an umbrella of love and kumbaya. There’s Mali. There’s Somalia. There’s certainly Egypt.
  2. The context today is better than it has ever been. We have loads of really smart Africans all around the world… we have the power of technology firmly resting in the palm of our hands. If you want institutions… we have institutions… LOADS of them (albeit a bit crooked and in need of serious repairs). We have China. That usually starts and ends the conversation on Africa and capacity building… so again… where are the leaders who have benefitted from this context in order to catalyze change and implement the development agenda of the day?
  3. We. Have. The. Team.— as I said… Africa is teeming with smart people. Connected people. People at the top and the bottom that can have a real impact. Which leads to my most important point.
  4. We DON’T have raw talent. We do not have any Beyonce’s. We don’t have little seventeen year old girls with talent and a dream— a vision worth imagining, willing to put everything on the line in order to make an impact. We can get make up artists… and the World Bank… and choreographers… and the African Union. We can fly in the Dambisa Moyos and wardrobe specialists… but who are we prepping? 

I find it interesting how emotional we get about our African leaders when they die of NATURAL causes in their OLD age. We should cry when people are martyred but we should celebrate the death of those who were blessed to live a full life. Unfortunately… with Mandela… we are just plain sad. It’s not even like in his current capacity he is actively making change, the man is a super senior citizen. But just the memory of what he represents… the monument of change that he was allows his inactivity to be worthy of exaltation. And yet when he dies, I think we will all be genuinely saddened… like someone gone too soon. Even in his old age of 94.


We are all probably afraid that now that him and Chinua Achebe are dead… there are no more people who represent the moral right and good of Africa and her people. We can not think of any one living today that inspires Africans in the way that the Mandela’s and Nkrumah’s of our continent’s history have done.

It’s sad.

uglycryThat’s why we will cry when he dies. That kind of ugly, squeeze your face, snot nosed, ‘WHY GOD’ kind of cry. He isn’t even dead and people have started posting eulogies. Started commemorating his life and wishing him a peaceful rest.  Instead of thanking God for the long life he had…we are really sad that we have no one else to look to. Andrews would say we should stop looking, but heroism is important because it brings lasting and credible change. Heroic leaders are important because they see a future that no one else would dare to imagine. Do you know how few people imagined an integrated America or South Africa? Or imagined a black president or the internet? Calestous Juma had this whole twitter moment where he tweeted quotes of things people thought to be impossible… it’s funny reading them now that those things have actually come into fruition. But those things needed leaders. Giants. Zuckerburgs. Gates’. Tutu’s. Suu Kyi’s. You. Me?

So when Mandela dies (and after we give his family the super side eye for their ratchet bickering)… we will cry.