Contemporary Leaders in the Fight Against South Africa’s Racial Injustice
Two very distinctive leaders, taking on two wildly diverging paths for the same pursuit, equality, and equity in South Africa. Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela could be compared to the spiritual and political contemporaries, Nehemiah and Ezra. Tutu was said to be the moral compass of South Africa, while Mandela was its father, guiding the oppressed people through the challenging road of freedom.
In Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, readers are taken into a masterclass of how leaders are shaped, formed, and reformed. From the early influence of his father until his untimely death to opportunities provided for him by his surrogate family to the subjugated clients he represented as a lawyer, Madiba recognized that he was a product of the people and context of his rearing in Apartheid South Africa.
As he reflected, “I had no epiphany, no singular revelation, no moment of truth, but a steady accumulation of a thousand slights, a thousand indignities and a thousand unremembered moments produced in me an anger, a rebelliousness, a desire to fight the system that imprisoned my people. There was no particular day on which I said, ‘Henceforth I will devote myself to the liberation of my people;’ instead, I simply found myself doing so and could not do otherwise.”
While Mandela was a driving force behind the political and governmental changes to South Africa, Tutu prophetical led a spiritual revolution through peaceful, non-violent social disruption. He would later lead the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, investigating the crimes of the Apartheid state after Mandela’s democratic election in 1994. His work, No Future Without Forgiveness, gives a glimpse into the formation, experience, and reflection on this experience and the long history that made it necessary.
“Thus, to forgive is indeed the best form of self-interest since anger, resentment, and revenge are corrosive of that summum bonum, that greatest good, communal harmony that enhances the humanity and personhood of all in the community,” urged Tutu.
While Mandela would be the leader of the fight for decades before Tutu arrived on the scene, their paralleled leadership approaches bring into full view the myriad ways leaders are formed and utilize their influence to bring about change. I return to my earlier statement about the contemporary leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah; one brought about effective change through spiritual formation while the other through the means of organization and visioning. Nevertheless, both served simultaneously in a challenging period in Israel’s history.
Through their respective writings, Mandela and Tutu show that influential leaders are never fully formed but are continually shaped by the perspective of others and the context of their times. As Mandela noted, “There are times when a leader must move out ahead of the flock, go off in a new direction, confident that he is leading his people the right way.”
As organizational leaders living in a post-COVID pandemic, politically divisive, and culturally contentious time, these two extraordinary leaders provide countless lessons and examples of the commitment, sacrifice, and grit necessary to bring about radical change. Their lives hold up a mirror for us to examine the depth, quality, and characteristics of leadership. More importantly, they challenge us to consider the level of grace by which we will encounter others.
 Mandela, Nelson. Long Walk to Freedom. London: Abacus, 2004.
 Tutu, Desmond. No Future Without Forgiveness. New York: Doubleday, 2000.
 Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom.
5 responses to “Contemporary Leaders in the Fight Against South Africa’s Racial Injustice”
Leave a Reply
You must be logged in to post a comment.
Wow!! Andy, your post challenges me to reconsider my prophetic role within the community I serve, and perhaps South Africa at large, given the possibilities of social media, etc. Indeed God has spoken powerfully through Nehemiah, Ezra, Mandela, Tutu, and you. Thank you.
Considering your statement, “Through their respective writings, Mandela and Tutu show that influential leaders are never fully formed but are continually shaped by the perspective of others and the context of their times” — are there certain areas given your new vocational role that you hope to shape as you engage with more of your denominational pastors?
Andy, thank you for your summary!
What would you identify as one or two of the things come up in the “mirror” for you that Tutu or Mandela reveal?
Andy, I really enjoyed your comparison of Mandela and Tutu to Ezra and Nehemiah. It points out how leaders can differ in their gifting and personality, yet still lead well. Do you believe that in America there has been a focus on one type of leadership over a more diverse one? More personally for you, as you have shifted your role, what leadership gifts/traits are more needed now than while you served as a pastor of a local church? I’m wondering if you’ve shifted from a Tutu role to a Mandela role at present…
Great observations, Andy. I like the comparison of Ezra and Nehemiah. Well stated. I mentioned this in another comment, but I wonder if Tutu’s approach would have been possible without Mandela? In other words, was the hammer of the reformer necessary to bring about the effective change such that reconciliation could really happen?
I think of what Diane tells me all the time. All great leaders have a dark side; all people for that matter.