Legacies of selflessness in the age of the selfie

Dev Nadkarni

No event in recent memory has seen so many world leaders, bitter political rivals, technocrats, A-list celebrities, thousands of media persons and hundreds of thousands of common folk descend on a venue in a far off country at such short notice to pay their respects to a departed soul. The attendee list at the event was a virtual who’s who of the whole wide world – a list that needed no preparation to compile, no invitations to be sent and almost no protocols to be followed.

Such was the greatness and the charisma of Nelson Mandela, undoubtedly one of the greatest leaders in all of mankind’s history, that the world’s movers and shakers descended on a stadium in South Africa without any of the security fuss and the cloying protocol that always accompanies them. An imposter of an interpreter with a serious criminal conviction to his name and who was known to be of unsound mind was able to stand next to the world’s most protected man, US President Barack Obama, in full view of billions of viewers around the world. Such an incident is unthinkable in any other country or venue. And even if it ever happened, it would have caused enough outrage for a dozen heads to roll.

Reams upon reams have been written on Nelson Mandela’s extraordinarily eventful life – often described as the long walk to freedom – and his death since his passing last month. The story of his struggles, his rise from obscurity to one of the world’s most well loved leaders of all times has inspired a generation. Along the way, his achievements – helping make apartheid a thing of the past, being his most significant one – have been celebrated ever since he was set free from 27 years of inhuman, solitary incarceration.

His utterances on cultivating tolerance, compassion and forgiveness for others’ transgressions, even if you have been the unjust victim, have conferred on him the quality of a political saint – no matter how much a contradiction in terms that may sound – not unlike another giant of a previous era: Mahatma Gandhi. Since much has been written about his exemplary life in the world media in the past month, anything more on that subject would sound repetitive. Instead, it would probably more worthwhile to look more closely at their legacy and how that might have a bearing on the future of South Africa and the world at large.

Both Mandela and Gandhi left a laudable legacy, much of which bear great similarities: equal respect to all human beings whether friend or foe, the insistence on abolishing any kind of discrimination (for Mandela it was colour; for Gandhi caste), peaceful methods of protest, developing such qualities as patience, tolerance towards the diversity of views, opinions and backgrounds that colour people’s positions on a host of matters, a strong belief in the ultimate power of peaceful and compassionate persuasion and such other sterling qualities.

But are these ideals realistic or just that – ideals? Mandela, though universally acknowledged as the man who sounded the death knell of apartheid in South Africa, has people divided over whether he made a successful President for his country. The ideals he employed during his long walk to freedom to throw off the inhuman yoke of apartheid from the people of his beloved country, those ideals do not seem to have worked in his avatar as its first black President.

That his successor President Jacob Zuma was mercilessly booed and humiliated during the funeral service bears testimony to how little Mandela’s legacy has rubbed off on his nation’s Government and his people. Corruption, nepotism and scant respect for the rule of law are rampant in South Africa and clearly the people have little or no faith in their present leadership, going by the way they regarded Mr Zuma at the funeral.

Both the present Government and the people of South Africa have thrown those qualities of tolerance and patience that Mandela stood for to the winds. That situation is not dissimilar to what is happening in Gandhi’s India. Corruption, nepotism and lawlessness are rife in India, even sixty five years after Gandhi was murdered. Like in Mandela’s case, it can be argued that Gandhi, while a great freedom fighter, was nowhere as good as a political adviser after the country received independence.

The legacies of both Mandela and Gandhi ultimately prove invaluable to politicians to offer lip service to the hapless people of South Africa and India respectively. While people are urged to strive to live up to their sterling values, the leaders carry on entrenching themselves and their family members and minions in positions of power with the most unethical and corrupt of means in a most unbecomingly shameless manner.

Quite like the parallels in Mandela’s and Gandhi’s teachings, their respective nations whose freedom they fought, for are hurtling along parallel lines away and away from those idealistic teachings. Both countries have grinding poverty, a rapidly widening chasm between the privileged and the dispossessed, plummeting quality of life, rising corruption, pollution – and most of all a new kind of apartheid: not one of colour or caste but one between the haves and the have nots.

This situation makes one wonder if the legacies of both those celebrated men were mere ideals, handy for the use of latter day politicians to ply their dubious trade of promising much and delivering nothing – except, that is, for themselves and their kith and kin.

As in the case of Gandhi, in Mandela’s name, too, statues, institutions, university studies, books and films will be made, even branded, around the world. After all, they were the men of their time who achieved great things against near impossible odds, things no ordinary humans could have hoped to achieve. They were men of exceptional qualities, which leaders of all persuasions seem to find too hard to emulate, but too easy to spout from their mealy mouths. Going by South Africa’s current state of affairs, its leaders seem to have already given the go by to his lofty ideals.

Mandela’s legacy, like Gandhi’s, seems doomed to remain firmly in the realm of books and university studies, as the world’s leaders get along with the business of running their countries. The ‘selfies’ that they take of themselves and their mates at somber occasions like those of Mandela’s funeral betraying their fiercely narcissistic streak.

First appeared in the January 2014 edition of Islands Business magazine