The Sixth Mandela Lecture given by President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf of Liberia

12 July 2008

President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf of Liberia came to South Africa a day or two before Saturday, the 12th of July 2008, when she would deliver the annual Mandela Lecture at Kliptown, Soweto.  I became aware that she was in the country from the numerous advertisements on SABC 2 of the event to be held to honour former President Nelson Mandela on his ninetieth birthday.  I had seen the documentary ‘Iron Ladies of Liberia' on SABC 2 about two years earlier and had become an admirer of President Johnson-Sirleaf.  On the evening prior to the lecture, the Liberian President was shown in a very brief TV news report of the meeting that Graca Machel had organised with the ANC Women's League to honour her. 

On Saturday, 12 July, I watched the television broadcast of the Mandela Lecture and again when it was repeated the next night.  It was a wonderful message of hope. The Zimbabwe crisis and our inability to deal with such crass violations of human rights, its spill over into South Africa of refugees and xenophobic violence, and the announcements of a readiness to kill by the ANC Youth Leader and the Leader of COSATU, had filled me with despair. But in listening to President Johnson-Sirleaf, I saw that she brought the light of hope to Africa.  In Liberia, they had lived through a crisis, similar to the Zimbabwean crisis, that had depleted the country economically, socially, politically, morally and spiritually, but in the years since she became President in 2005, the country has begun its recovery under her leadership.  She is a leader for whom the word democracy is real not just a cover under which people in power commit atrocities against the people who put their trust in them when they voted for them.  The people who voted for Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf have found in her a woman who embodies the word accountability.  She has not turned their votes into meaningless gestures; she has respected them as the people's mandate for good government.  In her case, power did not corrupt, nor did it become absolute, as it had in the case of Charles Taylor, as in the hands of Mugabe, where it is absolutely corrupt. 

When President Mandela introduced the Liberian President before she addressed the audience on Saturday afternoon, he said that as one grows older ‘one increasingly realises the importance of friendship and human solidarity.'  Then he described President Johnson-Sirleaf as ‘an inspiring example to others and the world, as one who strives for peace where others seek to destroy.  The heroes are those who make peace.  We salute you for your courageous example.'

In the address that followed, President Johnson-Sirleaf clearly demonstrated her complete understanding of human solidarity, what we refer to as ubuntu, in the sense of our accountability to one another.  She began her speech by paying tribute to the activist Nelson Mandela who fought against discrimination and oppression and described him as a man ‘who had paved the way for a new generation of leaders and democratisation in Africa with free and fair elections, and power peacefully transferred from one government to another.'    She paid tribute to the 1976 students of Soweto who stood up against oppression and whose courage had influenced people across the continent and inspired the people of the tiny country of Liberia.  According to the Liberian President, what the struggle in South Africa gave to the continent was a new three-fold focus: constitutionalism, human rights and democracy. 

As I see it, inherent in each of these is the commitment to accountability.  When one is elected to government, more important than prestige, is the realisation that one is there to serve.  The betrayal of the people's trust that we see in Zimbabwe today represents the epitome of decades of corruption.  Unfortunately, the potential for such excess exists in all governments.  We see it in South Africa in the siphoning off of funds from pensioners, widows and children in social welfare departments, in the travelgate scandal, in bribery and corruption of government officials, in the arms deal and other such shows of complete repudiation of ubuntu, of accountability.

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf who has worked to empower her people, to restore to them the services that a government undertakes, health, education, welfare, economic growth for all, and freedom of expression, is an exception.  During her Presidency, she has made tremendous strides against corruption.  In 2005, her country was rated at 190 out of 206 for corruption, in 2006, its rating moved to 146/206 and in 2007 it was ranked 113/206; in three years the country has moved up 73 places to a much lower level of corruption.  The President has improved the living conditions of her people, is providing electricity, water and other services, has had the international debt of Liberia cancelled and has dismissed corrupt officials from her government. 

And her understanding of accountability reaches beyond her country to the whole continent of Africa which she sees turning slowly towards democracy.  And that is why she boldly says that the African renaissance is at hand.  But her commitment to her continent makes it imperative for her to speak out against human rights abuses. ‘All Africans have responsibility for our collective future and therefore it is my responsibility to speak out against injustice everywhere.'  And in this she exemplifies President Mandela's identification of her as a courageous woman.  She demonstrates that courage is concomitant with accountability. When one becomes a leader one cannot make pusillanimous excuses for abuse, especially abuse that has become genocide.

She said, ‘I would be remiss if I did not express my solidarity with the people of Zimbabwe as they search for solutions to the crisis in their country.'  Then she told us of her stand at the African Union Summit.  ‘I, along with other colleagues ... appealed ... to denounce the run-off elections in Zimbabwe.  In 1985, Liberia's sham elections led to twenty years of civil war that left thousands dead and millions displaced.  We do not have the luxury to enclose ourselves in our own political enclaves.'  The problems in Liberia were exported to other places, Guinea, Cote d'Ivoire and Sierra Leone.  Until the problems in these countries are settled, Liberia will not be settled.  ‘Until the problems of Zimbabwe are resolved, the entire region will feel the effects of instability.'

In South Africa, we are fully aware of the truth of this statement.  Our refugee problem is burgeoning, we have outbreaks of xenophobic violence, our economy is being stretched to accommodate millions of refugees, and improvement of conditions of life for the indigenous poor creeps along at an imperceptible pace.

In her peroration, President Johnson-Sirleaf, in turning again to pay tribute to President Mandela, ruminated on her place in history.  ‘It is my hope that when history passes judgment on me, it will not just remark that I was the first democratically elected woman President in Africa, though I do believe and am convinced that women's leadership can change the world.'

In my opinion, the question of gender is irrelevant.  Integrity, honesty and accountability, the values by which President Johnson-Sirleaf lives, are what are vital to good leadership.   That kind of commitment is rare.  I see it in President Mandela and in Archbishop Tutu.  I have not seen it in women leaders in our country whose first priority seems to be the party, power and prestige, not the people.

President Johnson-Sirleaf concluded, ‘If someday I am remembered as one of the many dreamers who came in your wake ... I could think of no better way to be remembered' than as one who followed in your legacy.  Thus President Johnson-Sirleaf laid her sterling achievements at the feet of Nelson Mandela on the occasion of his ninetieth birthday celebration.

But she is an exceptional woman.  I do not regard her as a follower.  She is the beacon for a truly democratic Africa.  Her commitment to ubuntu is real, not mere tokenism.  And real commitment to ubuntu must bring about the African Renaissance.  In my view, she marches alongside Mandela and Tutu for whom ubuntu, that is, a true understanding of the human connection, makes betrayal of others an impossibility.

Muthal Naidoo

14 July 2008