Essay: Searching for Mandela: the Saint as a Sinner who Keeps on Trying

Joanne B. Ciulla, University of Richmond


We all create ourselves through our thoughts, beliefs, values and actions, but an iconic leader like Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela is different. There are two Mandelas – Mandela the man and Mandela the movement or the ‘saint’ who represents a set of ideals, moral values and aspirations of black and coloured people in South Africa and around the world. The two identities overlap, yet they are not quite the same. Is Mandela an authentic leader? If you do not do much research on him, Mandela certainly appears to meet all of the qualifications of an authentic leader. Yet, the more research one does on Mandela the more difficult it is to find out who he really is. It also raises questions about the application of authentic leadership to leaders like him and the theory itself. In her 1986 biography of Mandela, Mary Benson begins with the question ‘How is it that a man imprisoned for more than twenty-three years – who has not been allowed to be quoted by the South African media – has become the embodiment of the struggle for liberation in that country and the vital symbol of a new society?’ I will argue that, in addition to his natural gifts and intelligence, he is both a master of impression management and a willing pawn of history. His main source of power and influence is moral because of the sacrifices that he made and the morality of the fight for human rights and dignity for black and coloured South Africans.