Mandela’s body has been laid to rest and the fear is that his values and philosophy will go with him. How many world leaders who have been eulogising his memory have the same vision for a shared humanity?

What from Mandela’s life helps us take forward our own vision for wellbeing?

Anger. Although the photos in the newspapers have usually been of a smiling, benevolent and forgiving Mandela, none of us should forget his anger. He was angry at injustice, inequality and cruelty towards people who were dehumanised because they were not seen as ‘one of us’. Until 1967 when all Aboriginal Australians were given the vote, many were barely regarded as human. Now people with a different religion, sexual orientation or struggling with mental health issues are often the focus of discrimination. In schools children who are in some way different often get bullied. Anger is generally given a bad press – but it can be a necessary emotion to drive change. Are we angry enough to stay focused on working towards wellbeing for all – in whatever sphere we choose to do that?

Anger channelled into love. What was unique about Mandela is that his anger did not translate, as it often does, into hate. His time in prison allowed him to reflect on what was likely to be a more effective route to achieve his goals. He chose to channel the energy of anger into loving his fellow human beings, from the jailor in Robben Island to the man who could have been his greatest enemy, the white Afrikaans president of apartheid South Africa F.W. de Klerk. He proved that focusing on what people have in common – their shared humanity – rather than what drove them apart could be a powerful agent for change. He was one of the most emotionally literate leaders the world has ever known. He understood how to reach people and make each one feel that they mattered. This is a high ideal, especially in our over-busy lives – but worth striving for. It is the opposite of saying what matters most is me and mine. It is wellbeing beginning with ‘we’.

Forgiveness. Those immersed in the world of positive psychology will know that forgiveness is a central plank of a strong relationship. It admits that none of us are perfect, we can be misguided and we can over-react. Being able to forgive someone who has treated us badly is also a gift to ourselves. If we cannot forgive, the emotions of resentment, revenge and bitterness reduce our ability to think creatively to resolve conflict. Forgiveness does not mean succumbing to the will of another. Mandela illustrated that when he did not agree to a conditional release from prison. His dignity lay in his determination to stay with his principles – but not need to be the ‘winner’. This is the path to authentic integrity.

Courage. It takes courage to speak your truth, to go against the dominant voices (especially when they are in your own camp) and it takes courage to not join in with negativity. You cannot be brave unless at one level you are scared. In Mandela’s account of his circumcision at the age of 16 you are left in no doubt that the pain of that experience was excruciating – but that as a ‘man’ you were expected to put this aside. The lesson from this is that you can do this more easily if there is a bigger and more important goal to reach. This was reiterated in Mandela’s speech at his trial in which he said ” I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” You can read more of this speech here

Shared leadership. Mandela never sought privilege and power and gave up the presidency after just one term. Whenever he spoke of the struggle to end apartheid he talked of ‘our’ struggle and the people who were alongside him in this – both black and white. This message of collaboration is a strong one for those of us trying to promote wellbeing for all. Nikki Harre in her book Psychology for a Better World talks about the potential for conflict within groups who are often working towards the same ideals and the emotional angst this causes. We need to take our lead from Mandela and focus primarily on what our goals are and what is going to be most affective in achieving these – putting aside personal agendas as much as possible.

I do not like the cult of the individual much – it’s a pain in the neck looking up to them and people inevitably fall down from pedestals eventually! But I make an exception for Mandela – not just because of what he achieved but of how he got there – and the model he provides for all of us. We are trying to get a better deal for our kids and their future – there’s lots we can learn from this great man. Let’s make sure that his values and philosophy not only stay now he has gone – but grow and flourish.

Thanks for all that you do

Sue Roffey, December 2013