Mandela Day: Extraordinary times demand extraordinary leadership

“France is in tears, it’s deeply distressed, but it’s strong and will always be stronger – I assure you of that – than the fanatics who seek to attack it today.”

This was French President Francois Hollande hours after a man ploughed a 19-ton truck into crowds of people in Nice, killing 84. In recent weeks, a series of stunning events occurred around the world, from a number of terror attacks to the leadership overhaul in the United Kingdom, police killings in the United States and an attempted military coup in Turkey. It is a time when nations are searching for hope and good leadership. This Mandela Day should not just be about charity but the essence of Nelson Mandela.

Speaking at a memorial service for five police officers in Dallas, Texas last week, US President Barack Obama spoke of how police work is a thankless job. Police officers do not expect to hear the words “thank you” very often, he said, especially from those who need them the most. “The reward comes in knowing that our entire way of life in America depends on the rule of law, that the maintenance of that law is a hard and daily labour, that in this country we don’t have soldiers in the streets or militias setting the rules. Instead, we have public servants, police officers, like the men who were taken away from us.”

But this was not a simple tribute speech for officers killed in the line of duty. Obama had to strike a balance between acknowledging the difficulties faced by the police and the spate of killings of black people through excessive force employed by law enforcement officers. It had to take more than Obama’s usual superb oration skills to soothe the fears and emotions of his divided nation.

“I know that Americans are struggling right now with what we’ve witnessed over the past week… All of it has left us wounded and angry and hurt.”

“The deepest faultlines of our democracy have suddenly been exposed, perhaps even widened. And although we know that such divisions are not new, though they’ve surely been worse in even the recent past, that offers us little comfort. Faced with this violence, we wonder if the divides of race in America can ever be bridged. We wonder if an African American community that feels unfairly targeted by police and police departments that feel unfairly maligned for doing their jobs, can ever understand each other’s experience.”

But America’s divisions run deep and it would take more than the rousing words of their president to stop the rash of senseless killings. On Sunday, three police officers were killed and three others injured in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in what appears to be a revenge killing over the fatal shooting of a black man by police two weeks ago. In a live address to the nation on Sunday night, Obama said nothing justified violence against law enforcement. “We need to temper our words, open our hearts. All of us.”

In a time of rising violence, fear mongering and rhetoric, leaders are required to keep their fingers on the pulse of their nations, provide clarity of thought and promote a sense of security. In the UK, former Prime Minister David Cameron completely misread his nation, took a gamble on the Brexit vote and lost. For this he fell on his sword. A new Prime Minister Theresa May was installed last week, with the primary mandate of managing the UK’s exit from the European Union with as little damage as possible. The process is destined to be messy but May must act according to what the majority of voters wanted.

France is observing three days of mourning in the wake of the mass slaughter of people celebrating Bastille Day in Nice on Thursday night. President Francois Hollande has extended the state of emergency and assumed a war-like stance to retaliate against terrorists.

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by Ranjeni Munusamy

Photo credits: Reuters/Mike Hutchings