“The truth is that we are not yet free; we have merely achieved the freedom to be free, the right not to be oppressed. We have not taken the final step of our journey, but the first step on a longer and even more difficult road. For 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. The true test of our devotion to freedom is just beginning.” Nelson Mandela, The Long Walk To Freedom
The release of Nelson Mandela from prison in 1990 and South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994 did not herald the end of Apartheid. Legislatively, the country changed, it is true, but transformation is never as simple as rewriting the laws. For genuine change to occur in society, the hearts of its people need to be reformed.
I would love to live in a world where political governance and leadership were the same thing. But they are not. Politics will always entail the pursuit of wealth and power above all else. We are foolish to expect otherwise. The best we can hope for is that civil society has constructed effective mechanisms for holding its politicians (I am loathe to call any politician a leader) accountable for engorging themselves too excessively. The world has many politicians. It doesn’t have enough leaders.
Everywhere we look, we see symptoms of this leadership crisis: entire nations where people live in fear of their governments; businesses that exploit their employees; families where the very people who should be protecting children are responsible for hurting them; schools where children are primed to be mouthpieces and public relations icons for a particular ideology rather than where they are free to find themselves. It is a comparatively rare thing to find leaders – whether in families, schools, businesses or nations – who put the needs of others first, who lead by serving, who use what power they have to empower others.
It may be a tragedy that political governance and leadership are so far removed, but it is also a blessing. It means that we do not have to wait for politicians to drive change. We should never have made that their responsibility in the first place. Real reform has always started in the hearts of the people. It has always been achieved through their sweat and their blood. That has not changed.
So I do not think that we will achieve reconciliation and social justice in this country by waiting for the government to do it for us. It will not be our votes that ultimately determine our capacity for overcoming the crises our nation faces. It will be our hearts. The journey must – as it always has – begin there.
How do we begin? Madiba has already provided us with a starting point: “live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others”. The popular mantra of letting your vote do the talking so that hopefully the new government makes better decisions is a myth. While I agree that it is the democratic responsibility of every citizen to thoughtfully exercise the right to vote that was won through the blood of patriots, I refuse to believe that any government – no matter how good – should be entrusted with the moral leadership of a people. Voting will never produce good leadership. At best it might ensure good governance. Leadership must start with you.
So I am asking that, wherever you may find yourself in the world, you choose today to accept the mantle of leadership that has been given to you. I am asking that you ask yourself what it means to be a leader in your own circle of influence. What does it mean for you to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others? What would you need to change, in terms of your actions and attitudes, particularly towards those with whom you profoundly disagree, so that their freedom is enhanced? How do you interact with (not simply ignore) those whose aspirations, ideologies and desires are completely contrary to your own? How will you leverage the power that you have to enhance the freedom of all your countrymen, not just the ones you like and with whose values and opinions you sympathise? If you really are devoted to freedom, are you prepared to walk the talk?