Author Shelley Enarson, December 8 2013: I remember the day I heard a man named Nelson Mandela would be released from prison. As a child growing up in a public white school in Pretoria [South Africa], I can't recall any balloons of celebration that day. The opposite was true - a sense of caution and fear filled the air. In my 10-year-old rationale, I wondered who was this criminal who was being released with so much public attention. After all, criminals go to jail and if this man was being released from jail, he had to be a criminal - so I thought.
The months following his release were unsettling, tense. In our community there were rumors of people planning to leave the country before an election. In school, little was said about political developments apart from rumors that "Black kids who didn’t speak English would be joining our classrooms."
Little did we know, our fears would be turning points in history. Our apprehensions proof to the world that an integrious leader can defy the course of revenge and violence.
This week, as the world mourns the loss of Mandela, there have been many tributes by world leaders describing Mandela’s leadership:
A great son, a father, courageous, humble, influential and profoundly good.
And I wonder - what was Madiba’s defining life process that led to these undisputed global accolades.
Was it his years of suffering in a small prison cell for an ideal of equality with glim prognosis of fruition? Or perhaps his commitment to put the greater good above his own sense of entitlement in holding onto power.
We live in an age of ideation, opinions, leadership through words in 140 characters or less. Leadership in this context promotes expression, opportunity, lessons sharing. All good things.
But I think it’s important to remember Mandela’s work came at a cost. A cost for his words, his commitment. Most leadership of generational significance does too.
I recall talking to a doctor working in East Africa who told me that after three weeks of working around the clock and without seeing his family, he decided to take a Sunday to catch up on needed sleep and spend time with his kids. He had a patient in the hospital that day - a child on life support - and did all the necessary preparations to make sure the child would be ok.
That Monday morning, he learned the child had died due to nurse negligence.
The cost. The cost to the child’s life. The cost to the doctor’s conscience that plagued him for taking a nap and being a good father.
The cost. The cost that propels us to work those extra few hours when we’re ready to drop.
One of Mandela’s great gifts to us can be encouragement to embrace the cost we don’t want, but know is unavoidable if we are to follow our service through.
Shelley Enarson is a communications specialist who consults on global health programming in East Africa. She blogs here and can be followed on Twitter @ShelleyEnarson.
Image credit: Flickr Creative Commons.