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Who Is The Next Mandela?


I'm Celeste Headlee and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, Pope Francis is Time magazine's person of the year for 2013. We'll talk about how the pope is changing both the Catholic Church and its relationship to the world. That's in a few minutes.

But first, mourning continues in South Africa for anti-apartheid hero Nelson Mandela. Some 100 leaders and dignitaries from around the world attended a memorial service in Soweto yesterday. And U.S. President Barack Obama was among the many speakers.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We will never see the likes of Nelson Mandela again. But let me say to the young people of Africa and the young people around the world, you, too, can make his life's work your own.

HEADLEE: So today, we wonder about those young people around the world and who among them might be the next Nelson Mandela. Who's risking their life to fight oppression? Who might one day be celebrated for their struggle? I'm joined by New York Times Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Nicholas Kristof. And also with us is Brian Dooley. He's a director at Human Rights First, which is a nonprofit human rights organization based in New York and Washington. Welcome to both of you.

BRIAN DOOLEY: Thank you very much.


HEADLEE: Brian, you actually wrote an article on this very topic, not just about Nelson Mandela's passing and his legacy, but that while he was unique, there are thousands of very courageous persecuted activists right now, some of them in prison, that need support from the international community and specifically from the United States. Gives us a couple examples of the people that you're talking about.

DOOLEY: Sure. Sadly, the world is not short of political prisoners. And I guess, you know, some of the famous obvious names spring to mind - Liu Xiaobo in China, Gao Zhisheng in China also, who was a human rights lawyer just as Mandela had been, right through to - plenty of political prisoners still in Russia, including the young women from Pussy Riot.

But I think if we're going to make parallels with Mandela, it might be more useful to look at political prisoners who are in jail because they are - have been put there by regimes which are supported by the United States, just as Mandela had been put in prison in the '60s, '70s and '80s while the U.S. was supporting the apartheid regime. So we can look at Eskinder Nega in Ethiopia, the journalist sentenced to 18 years. Saudi Arabia is not short of political prisoners, Mohammed al-Qahtani, for instance - another guy serving a long sentence, now sentenced to 10 years for speaking out against the government. Bahrain is a very prominent example. You have many political prisoners there jailed for peaceful dissent, people like Zainab al-Khawaja - her father, too, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja - leader of the main human rights organization there, Nabeel Rajab.

Now those examples are actually of people who've been put in prison for peaceful dissent, unlike, I guess, Mandela who was very forthright about his - the necessities he sought for armed resistance. So I think that's where we ought to look in terms of who we can help and who we can try and help to transition out of prison and into a position of democratic leadership, ideally. And where the U.S. has most leverage is with those places where it's supporting the dictators.

HEADLEE: So, Nicholas, you've obviously written quite a bit about, not just Nelson Mandela, but his legacy. And in fact, you recently wrote that his legacy and spirit live on now. Which part of the legacy? I think - you talk specifically about the fact that very few freedom fighters end up being good presidents, right? So which part of the legacy are we looking for when we think about the next Mandela, the freedom fighter or the president?

KRISTOF: Well, I mean, I think both, but I suppose especially the search for social justice, the search for unity, the search for democracy. And I do find it kind of frustrating, frankly, that so much of the analysis has been backward-looking at the mistakes that the U.S. made when Mandela was in prison years ago. And those are real, but I think we're still making some quite similar mistakes today by refusing to stand up for people in various parts of the world who are now in prison and now need our help.

And I think there are, you know, a lot of candidates for that. But, you know, I'm in Nairobi today, and I was actually just in the Kibera slum, and there was a big meeting of the people in the slum talking about Mandela and Mandela's legacy. And one of the questions they were talking about was, who are the next Mandelas, and how do we create more Mandelas? It's a real question all over the world.

HEADLEE: If you're just joining us, I'm talking about whether there could be another Nelson Mandela with Human Rights First's Brian Dooley and the New York Times' Nicholas Kristof. So when we talk about Mandela, one of the conversations that's come up, especially since his passing, is this idea that at one point - in fact very recently, just a few years ago - he was still on a terrorist watch list, for example, here in the United States.

One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter. And in fact, many of these political prisoners that you were mentioning, Brian, have been put in prison, and their government has labeled them a terrorist. But is there a different sense to that word, terrorist, now, post-9/11, for example, than there was in Mandela's day? Do you think, Brian?

DOOLEY: Yes, slightly, although, I'm not sure it particularly matters that there is. I mean, Mandela was in prison really in a Cold War context. And now, you know, the terrorism is defined in a post-9/11 context. I think part of the difficulty in trying to identify a new Mandela and sorting out the real terrorists from the terrorists so-called by an oppressive regime is that we didn't really know the brilliance of Mandela, I think, until he came out of prison.

I remember the first discussions I had really about Mandela. It was in the early '80s. I was living in a black township in South Africa. And while he was the preeminent leader that I would hear about from the young men and women there, you know, he was only one of half a dozen. Others, you know, preferred a slightly different political line led by the late Robert Sobukwe and Steve Biko and some allegations really that Mandela was too white-friendly. And so although he was a great leader, it was very mysterious. Here he was, off imprisoned in an island. I didn't hear much about him. There wasn't any international media coverage of him. There hadn't been a photo of him for many years. And it wasn't really 'til he emerged and got the chance to be a great political leader that he took it. Compare that to, for instance, Robert Mugabe, you know, who, during the '60s and '70s, also fought against an oppressive regime.

But when Mugabe got elected, he stayed in power and has become a dictator ever since, since the early '80s, whereas Mandela - I think, the genius of Mandela was he left South Africa after one term - he left the South African presidency after one term, left the country with a very robust, very strong constitution and a tradition now of free and fair elections every five years - many problems in South Africa, but I think one of the great legacies of Mandela was making officially the transition to being a politician and then the transition to being an ex-politician...


DOOLEY: ...A step which Mugabe hasn't been able to take.

HEADLEE: So, Nicholas Kristof, as we're talking about encouraging the next Mandela, and you were saying that you were listening to these conversations about how to create the next Mandela, what are some of the ideas about that? Mandela has become really an iconic figure for kids everywhere, but especially children in Africa. How are they going about encouraging people to follow in his footsteps?

KRISTOF: Well, it's actually funny. Just today, I'm with a young man named Kennedy Odede who grew up in the Kibera slum. And he got no formal education at all - never went to a lick of school. But he's incredibly smart, self-taught, very charming.

And he worked with an American for a little while who gave him a book about Mandela. And Kennedy read it, absorbed it, became fascinated by it and started a local youth empowerment program. And that led to a literacy program, an education program. And it's now flowered, and Kennedy is working to, you know, encourage these young people to try to tackle issues of injustice. Today, I'm with him. There was a 4-year-old girl who was raped in September. It as clear-cut a case as you can imagine. There were witnesses. There was medical evidence, and the police refused to prosecute, probably 'cause somebody took a bribe. And so Kennedy and his - the people with him are here at the police station.

They're trying to get the police to actually issue a report. So, you know, there are these sort of grassroots aspiring Mandelas in so many parts of the world. And I think they need, you know, encouragement and support, and we can help do that.

HEADLEE: Brian, how does it change the effort Nicholas is talking about there by a remembrance of Mandela? Many people have pointed out that Martin Luther King, for example, has become a bit of a saint, that he's become this icon, inhuman, in some ways.

DOOLEY: Yeah, and I think that's a bit unhelpful. I have to say, some of the stuff we've seen over this last week, that it sets the bar so high that if you make Mandela into this mythical, impossible to really emulate figure, then you're going to say, well, where's the Mandela in this struggle or that struggle? And the truth is, he wasn't perfect. He was a man who did some brilliant things. But I think if we set the bar at an unrealistic level for everybody else to reach and then say, well, you're no Mandela, then that's not really helpful.

HEADLEE: Nicholas, what do you think about that? Do we have to be careful in how we memorialize Mandela?

KRISTOF: You know, I think that the most important lessons we have as Americans to focus on is not for other people, but for us. And I think there is a real lesson about mistakes we made in the past and what we can do now and that is to stand on the right side of history and to resist the pressures of Realpolitiks or expediency to stand with some tyrant who is our ally at the moment. And there are so many cases where if President Obama wants to put his lofty rhetoric into practical use, he can speak up, not only about the legacy of Mandela, but also for political prisoners in Ethiopia, in Bahrain.

And, you know, it was sort of painful, at the same time the administration was mourning Mandela with such beautiful rhetoric, that it sent Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel to Bahrain to hang out with the king. You know, this is a minority regime that is violently suppressing the majority. If there's one thing we sort learned from Mandela's history, it's that you don't side with minority regimes that violently suppress the majority.

HEADLEE: Nicholas Kristof, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the New York Times. He joined us on the phone from Nairobi, Kenya. And Brian Dooley is a director of the Human Rights Defenders program at Human Rights First, a nonprofit human rights organization. And he joined us right here in our studios in Washington, D.C. Nicholas and Brian, thank you both so much.

DOOLEY: Thank you very much.

KRISTOF: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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