A former freedom fighter and popular demagogue takes power in a young republic. The rapid and tumultuous turn of events shocks the world, while at home his popularity leads many to conclude he will become president for life, if not king. That man was, of course, George Washington, the most popular president in the history of the United States.
This month, another former rebel fighter (though admittedly one who lacked Washington’s leadership on the field of battle) passed away. Praise for President Mandela has come from leaders across the political spectrum; like Winston Churchill, even Mandela’s most ardent critics can find something to admire in the his career.
Mandela was above all a peace-maker. Without him, South Africa’s transition to majority rule would have been bloodier than the early stages of the process suggested it would be. Mandela, it is true, also made a turn later in life toward an awkward embrace of the free-market. Yet, the important thing to remember about Mandela is that, like George Washington, he remembered to step down. George Washington died at the age of 67, two years after leaving office. Had he decided not to leave the presidency and lived as long as Nelson Mandela, Washington could have ruled well into the 19th century. But, Washington made the correct choice, one which set an example for subsequent American president and for national liberation leaders ever since.
Just like George Washington, Mandela faced the choice of becoming President for life – either overtly or by indirectly ruling from behind the scenes. This would not have been an unusual move for him to make. Indeed, the five longest serving rulers in the world today all hail from Africa. When Louis Senghor of Senegal stepped down from power in December 1980, he became the first African leader to do so. He had ruled for 20 years. Some of the worst of the continent’s dictators are a stone’s throw from South Africa. One needs to look no further than South Africa’s neighbours to see the alternatives: in Angola Jose Eduardo dos Santo’s regime imprisons opponents for wearing t-shirts with political slogans and recently cracked down on Muslims and Protestant worship in the country. Even worse, Robert Mugabe’s control over Zimbabwe has ruined what was once one of Africa’s most prosperous nations.
Had Mandela chosen that path it is unlikely that Oprah Winfrey, let alone President Obama, would have headed to South Africa for his funeral.
In stepping power down from power, the actions of George Washington and Nelson Mandela recall the example of Cincinnatus, an ancient Roman leader whose example today is too often forgotten. In 454, Cincinnatus was a retired politician cum gentlemen farmer whose estate lay not far from Rome. Working with his servants in the fields one day, he was surprised to see a group of senators approaching with the message that he had been named the dictator of Rome to help defeat a hostile invasion of the tribal Aequi.
He accepted the authority. Hastily mobilizing the army, Cincinnatus quickly departed to face the barbarians. At the battle of Mons Algidus, Cincinnatus personally led the infantry into battle. After crushing the barbarian army, he graciously spared the lives of the Aequi soldiers and returned with their leaders to Rome in triumph. Granted a term of 6 months as dictator, Cincinnatus relinquished power after just 16 days and returned to his farm. In 439, he again served briefly as dictator helping to stop an attempted coup.
The example of Cincinnatus was not forgotten by the patriotic early Americans who took his name for the town of Cinncinati, Ohio. Nor does it appear his example was forgotten by the man many Africans will remember simply as Madiba.