lIf there is one truth about the world, it is that it does not stand still. A great leader is not one who refuses to acknowledge change. A great leader is one with the ability, confidence, and courage to demonstrate deep principles in changing circumstances.
I hold two truths in my heart today. The first is that in many places the legacy of British imperialism is a painful, even horrific one. But I also died with your land and your people; Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II was a leader of ability, confidence and courage. Not only that, but Her Majesty and Nelson Mandela—my grandfather—were so highly regarded for each other that they were by first name.
This is apparently a violation of royal protocol. But it’s also one I like precisely because the exception underlined the remarkableness of their closeness. It is a legacy that I hope her successor, King Charles III, can continue.
In fact, he has to. When the mourning is formally over, when he wonders what his role in the world can and should be, I would like to invite King Charles to reflect on the closeness of his mother and my grandfather, and what that means for the possibility of principled leadership in the world.
Queen Elizabeth ascended the throne in 1952 while in Kenya. The link with Africa must remain, because in her life she has visited more than 20 African countries. That, in turn, may have increased her disgust at the legacy of racism and the fact of apartheid.
Some speculate that the tension between the Queen and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had something to do with Thatcher’s refusal to act against apartheid. In addition, we South Africans admired the Queen for refusing to visit our country during apartheid, and for rushing to support my grandfather after the system fell.
That’s why she and my grandfather became so close: It wasn’t where they came from, but where they wanted the world to go that brought them together. They recognized that as leaders they had a special responsibility to do what they could to steer their country and their people in the right direction.
And at a time when political processes and leaders are viewed with such skepticism, the value of such leadership is soaring: doing what we do, not what we say. King Charles III certainly faces a difficult landscape. With sharp polarization destroying many democracies, and global threats like the climate crisis growing ever more dangerous, one could fear the worst.
But that said, it is precisely the office that Charles III represents – the authority he can and cannot exercise – that makes him so important at the moment. Like his mother before him, King Charles naturally takes an oath to the Church of England as defender of the faith and protector of beliefs. For him, faith traditions have always been a matter of deep attraction. Can he convert that interest into the kind of assistance the world so desperately needs?
There are, of course, precedents for him, such as the late Bishop Desmond Tutu, who incidentally also came from the Anglican Church. There are now examples around him, too: Pope Francis seeks to inspire the world to heal itself, push us to face our responsibility to God’s creation, and act humbly in the world.
Other faith leaders, such as the Aga Khan, are committed to building bridges with other faith communities, or enabling education in impoverished communities – especially girls’ education. Another Muslim cleric, Dr. Abdulkarim al-Issa, has turned the organization he leads, the Muslim World League, into a vehicle for interfaith dialogue.
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King Charles has previously expressed his admiration for other faith traditions, such as Islam. He has made building relationships with other religions a part of his work in the world – the most valuable as Britain is becoming increasingly diverse, including religious. He is also a staunch environmental advocate. With leaders like the Bishop of Norwich, he could find ways to channel the authority of the monarchy to create a better world.
All this does not mean that Britain has not suffered a great loss, but another characteristic of great leaders is how they deal with the absence we face in our lives. Queen Elizabeth’s friendships reveal who she was and what she wanted from the world and for the world. The mourners who gathered to wave her goodbye one last time reflect how deeply moved, moved and fundamentally improved we all were for who she was.
Let’s die without fear. Because there is still a lot of work to be done. The honor of that burden belongs to us.
Ndileka Mandela is a writer, social activist and head of the Thembekile Mandela Foundation