Why we should say the truth about dead leaders

Nelson Mandela addresses a capacity crowd at a rally in Port Elizabeth, April 1, 1990. [Reuters]

I was in South Africa and the unimaginable has just happened. There is a new book called Reassessing Mandela. The book is a collection of essays reassessing the legacy of former South African President Nelson Mandela. Madiba himself!

Never in the history of any country has a leader achieved local and international adoration like Mandela did and now South Africans are reassessing his contribution. Is this right? Absolutely. Maybe we should too.

African tradition expects that we should praise the dead as if their death automatically cleanses them of all their past sins. I recently attended a funeral and was listening to the eulogies that describe a saint – yet we all knew he was a conniving, selfish, dishonest, insensitive waste of a human life who suddenly metamorphosed into a saint by dying.

When people die, we lie to one another and give too much-undeserved praise. Let us pray for God to forgive them their sins and for patience for the living relatives. Let’s stop there!

There should also be a distinction between private and public figures. Perhaps with ordinary people, we can and should allow the family to decide how they want to describe and remember their dead. We can even become economic with the truth to spare the living who did not really know the departed well, then so be it. It’s a private family affair. 

But with public figures, we must apply different measurements. They lost the right to privacy when they became public figures. They are now public property and deserve full public scrutiny before and after death.

Yes, the family did not choose to have a relative who became famous and therefore we cannot subject their families to such scrutiny, but dead public figures are not exempted. In fact, we should not discuss their personal relationships, it is their public record that we must put on trial.

Public figures should be measured by three parameters. Did they leave any lasting contribution to our society? We need to assess the balance sheet of the good and the bad, and if the bad outweighs the good then we should declare him or her a failed saint.

Secondly, we need to evaluate their performance in the time and circumstances that they operated in; did they do the best that they could have done in those circumstances? For this, we need to compare them to other leaders operating under the same circumstances. Finally, did they pass the test of basic integrity and humility expected of all leaders?

We need a dose of honesty in our lives and a certain measure of refrain. Perhaps if public figures realised that history will judge them harshly for their theft and corruption, for failure to serve while in leadership then they would be more careful with the trust that the public granted to them.

If they knew that there would be a few wailing women besot with grief, and a carnival of people in black acting with grief, that would be accompanied with rivers of ink lamenting their failures, then perhaps in their lives on earth they would take their responsibilities more seriously – knowing that the evil they do will live after them and that we will not gloss them over.

Next time you attend a funeral, just listen and ask yourself “really?”