Nelson Mandela: Lessons for Filipino leaders

Ricardo Saludo

Ricardo Saludo

Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.
Great anger and violence can never build a nation.
Reconciliation means working together to correct the legacy of past injustice.
— Nelson Mandela, 1918-2013

As the Philippines joins the world in remembering with fondness and admiration the recently departed South African statesman and freedom fighter Nelson Mandela, the country’s leaders would do well to learn from the heroic South African who struggled and suffered not only to end the racist apartheid regime, but also to forge national reconciliation and forgiveness after decades of cruel oppression and bitter conflict.

Without denigrating our own esteemed leaders, it is hard to imagine that some of their ways and words would find echoes in the public life of “Madimba,” as Mandela was respectfully called by his people.

Take the recent salty privileged speeches by Senators Miriam Defensor Santiago and Juan Ponce Enrile. The two senior legislators offered Congress and citizenry some memorable lessons in parliamentary discourse, complete with juicy helpings of unsavory personal shenanigans.

Wishing adversaries well
How such lurid details would advance policy making and legislation, we shall leave for political scientists and historians to make up. For this article, suffice it to say that such excoriating attacks had no place in the late black statesman’s phrasebook.

Among countless conciliatory gestures in his 95 years, Mandela met privately during his 1962 trial with the prosecutor who got him convicted for illegal travel and incitement to strike. Just before his sentencing, the dissident wished state attorney P.J. Bosch well, then went to jail for the next 27 years. Mandela also shared food with his police escort during his arrest that year, and helped his prison wardens in writing essays.

Could there possibly be far greater enmity and bitterness between veteran lawmakers in Manila than political prisoners and their jailers in Johannesburg? Go figure.

The very worst politics . . .
Moving on, consider the apparent politics that fatally delayed national government assistance to Yolanda-devastated Tacloban City, according to its Mayor Alfred Romualdez, testifying on Tuesday to Congress.

After the megastorm, the beleaguered mayor recounted: “Secretary [Mar] Roxas said we should legalize everything. I could not understand why I could not get support from the national government. Secretary Roxas said that ‘we have to be careful because you are a Romualdez and the President is an Aquino.’”

Roxas justified the Romualdez-Aquino remark. As quoted in Rigoberto Tiglao’s Wednesday column, the Interior and Local Government Secretary told GMA7’s Arnold Clavio: “Is it not true he is a Romualdez? Is it not true the president is an Aquino? Secondly, is it not true he said the local government cannot handle it on their own, so he sought our help?”

In sum, Roxas saw a problem involving Romualdez and Aquino clans which was serious enough to interfere with life-saving succor and desperately needed relief for a city crushed by Yolanda, with countless citizens needing food, shelter and protection, or dead and rotting on streets and in trees.

Congressional hearing chairman Senator Antonio Trillanes 4th rightly lamented: “Recalling what Mayor Romualdez mentioned, if politics got in the way of disaster response, this is the worst thing we could ever do.” The very worst, indeed.

. . . and the very best
So different was Nelson Mandela. When the head of state arrived at the presidential building the day after his inauguration in May 1994, he also encountered someone who thought decades of political animosity could not be set aside: John Reinders, the chief of presidential protocol under two white leaders, F.W. de Klerk and his predecessor, P.W. Botha, whose intense apartheid advocacy made people call him The Crocodile.

When Reinders said he was packing his things for Mandela’s own protocol head to come in, the latter urged him to stay: “You see, we people, we are from the bush. We do not know how to administer a body as complex as the presidency of South Africa. We need the help of experienced people such as yourself.”

What governance! What humility! Here were government people far worse than “midnight appointees”; for years or even decades, they served a regime that systematically oppressed and repressed the great majority of South Africans for their skin color. Yet there were no mass sackings of bureaucrats. Instead, to build the new South Africa, Mandela harnessed the bureaucracy and the security apparatus he had struggled against.

Why couldn’t it be that way between Aquino and Romualdez, Santiago and Enrile, and other feuding politicos, shelving grievances and just working together for the nation? Isn’t it harder to cling to painful animosities? Why must our leaders punish themselves like that, and deprive the people of their combined talents and service? Such arrogance, such stupidity.

A tale of four presidents
A final lesson on magnanimity and national unity: After defeating incumbent de Klerk in the first presidential elections where most adult blacks voted, Mandela was empowered to select a deputy president. Against the wishes of fellow anti-apartheid activists, the new Chief Executive appointed as the second-highest official in the land his predecessor de Klerk.

There’s more. Instead of moving into his designated residence, Mandela chose to live elsewhere and let de Klerk continue residing in the presidential palace. “If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy,” the late statesman wrote in his 1994 autobiographical book, Long Walk to Freedom, filmed the following year. “Then he becomes your partner.”

Partnership, by comparison, was clearly not on President Benigno Aquino 3rd’s mind in dealing with his predecessor. Since November 2011, Gloria Arroyo has been jailed without bail and trial. In the electoral sabotage case, the judge found the only evidence against her weak: an affidavit by accused mass murderer Norie Unas, who was promised immunity from prosecution. He is among the principal accused in the 2009 Maguindanao Massacre, in which 56 people were killed.

In the plunder case involving sweepstakes agency intelligence funds, the first investigation found zero evidence, since no one was found to have received any illicit money. So Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales ordered a new probe, which dutifully gave her the finding she needed to send Arroyo to jail without bail. In the latest turn, the Philippine National Police has stopped her husband Jose Miguel Arroyo from sleeping over her detention facility in the Veterans Memorial Medical Center.

Our leaders truly have much to learn from the great Madimba.


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  1. Odniwsederf Onerom on

    True LEADERS emerged in critical situations. As I had seen the documentary of Nelson Mandela, I was awed by his leadership, humility, his consistentency as a champion of the oppressed and marginalized in his country with that CALAMITY as the Apartheid even it means death.. I was also moved by the unselfish decision of the former president de Klerk to grant clemency and pardon to Nelson Mandela. This turn of events produced the greatest test of HUMAN GREATNESS in spite of very grave and critical situations. I can just wish it to happen here in our country where Greed and Politics prevail. With our present leaders we can just ask… WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE? When will be our time of deliverance?

  2. Our essential Pinoy asset – the survival mechanism of making fun out of the most surreal hardship is also our weakest trait. Mar’s hyena like laugh is masochistic as it is bane, Aquino’s puerile response is an expression of his control freak type of management. Both are quintessential Pinoy examples of this trait of “Its More Fun in da Pilipins’ even amidst an horrific tragedy.

  3. Mandela’s greatness puts him in league with other great persons in the worlds history like Gandhi, Mohammad, and Buddha who were specially annointed by God to accomplish a special mission on earth. His passing on is lamented by all without any distinction in race or political color. It is so unfortunate that our own president chose to not attend the funeral rites and sou missed the chance to be among the worlds current leaders like President Obama who acknowledge greatness when they see it. To hope that our politicians can learn from this great man is to dream an impossible dream.

  4. Our president character is still part of the ancient form of behavior, “sakim” He is far more primitive than Africans.

  5. Very well said Mr, Saludo. I believe we cannot progress as a nation without reconciliation. The present administration’s impunity and vindictiveness further divide us as a nation.

  6. Claro Apolinar on

    A large part of the Yellow Army that lofted up their sainted Cory Aquino to the presidency is made up of nuns in the religious orders, bishops and seminarians. These same people, who misdiscerned what God wanted from them then or insisted in their consciences to play politics and do their own will not God’s, have done the same for Cory;s son.
    The human solidarity that God wants, and was truly also Nelson Mandela’s will, seems totally absent from the hearts of President Aquino, his men and women in his administration, and the people of the Yellow Army (including those of the so-called Black and White Movement) and the bribed congressmen and senators who acquiesce in tormenting the sinner Gloria Arroyo and drive her to death.
    Are the religious superiors and their nuns, the bishops and Protestant pastors who condone President Aquino’s cruelty and hatred for the unity of the Filipinos so controlled by Satan that they cannot speak out against Aquino’s wrongdoings?

    Claro Apolinar

  7. I agree with on all accounts with your story about Mandela, a leader should be a builder of consensus, unlike our Pnoy whose attitude is divisive and polarizes the Philippines.

    On the matter of Madam Defensor Santiago and JPE, I disagree with you in that
    your more concerned with the messenger instead of the the messages the lady senator was trying to convey. I guess I don’t blame you, It’s a band-wagon mentality, just ignore the many things what Senator Miriam is accusing JPE of.