What makes a leader? To some, it’s simply a person with power – the more brutish and unrestrained, the better. That has been the philosophyof despots for centuries. But for my grandfather, Nelson Mandela, power was something else. It was found in the willingness to commit your entire being to a set of values; to not only advocate for them but to embody them. Come what may.
In that respect, many leaders don’t have power in the ordinary sense that we associate with the term. For people such as my grandfather, their moral courage and strength is what allowed them to exercise influence. What’s more, people often cannot help but align themselves with the values and virtues of a noble person. That is why my grandfather went from a prison cell to helping overturn apartheid, winning over the most ardent critics in South Africa.
And that is why he would have mourned the loss of the Queen along with the wider world. Some may find that strange, considering the painful legacy of British colonialism in Africa (and beyond). But I saw in Queen Elizabeth II a contrast with what the United Kingdom once was, as well as an opportunity to understand what leadership could be.
The Queen’s relationship to my continent was a long one. She was in Africa when her father died. The connection endured, and during her reign she visited more than 20 African nations. Once, she even joked to my grandfather that she’d been to more of Africa than “almost anybody”. But for so many Africans, we mourn her because of the reason she developed a friendship with Nelson Mandela.
I know from personal recollection with my grandfather that he saw in the Queen a true friend. Someone who understood him and how he understood the world. Someone who was, for Britain, exactly what Britain needed during times of change: compassionate conscience.
The Queen refused to visit South Africa during apartheid, with some even believing the tension between her and Margaret Thatcher was partly due to Thatcher’s blatant inaction. What the Queen did after apartheid underscored where she stood all along (and might explain why she and my grandfather were on a first-name basis, an uncommon status with a British monarch). Her Majesty declared her support for South Africa’s first Black president quickly, making her one of the first world leaders to do so. She also smoothed the way for South Africa to rejoin the Commonwealth, overturning yet another consequence of apartheid.
For some in positions of great wealth, disconnected from politics, the temptation might be to withdraw from the world. To drown yourself in hedonism and diversion. But the Queen instead summoned her immense moral capital and the legacy of her throne to advocate in subtle but nevertheless profound ways. Even her determined, steely consistency, her refusal to debase her office, provided Britain with an anchor in stormy seas and difficult moments. That deserves praise.
It also deserves imitation– the sincerest form of flattery. Charles III now succeeds his late mother at a time that is difficult for Britain and the world. With a pandemic just behind us, and facing other major challenges such as the climate crisis, globally taxing conflicts, economic depression and increasingly fractured societies exasperated by a rise in bigotry and racism, the world looks on King Charles to follow the legacy of his mother – to be, in short, a moral leader.
One way Charles can do that is by drawing on the immense faith-based symbolic power and credibility he possesses – not only as head of the Church of England, but as a monarch who has spent years building bridges with faith leaders and communities across the globe. This is the same Charles who once said he wants to be a “defender of faith”, rather than simply “defender of the faith”, to reflect his commitment towards people of all religions.
The world needs such a leader now. Someone capable of using constructive non-political avenues to build bridges at a time when the nations and regions of the world feel as if they are drifting further apart. And there are ample new partners Charles can engage with. Like Pope Francis, who has been outspoken on the climate emergency. Or the Aga Khan, who has taken great pains to build interfaith bridges. Or Dr Mohammad bin Abdulkarim Al-Issa, who runs the world’s largest Islamic NGO, the Muslim World League, and who led the first Islamic religious delegation to Auschwitz.
Yes, such efforts by the new King would be devoid of any political power. But the Queen and my grandfather proved that real power lies in the hearts and minds of people. And that is why they, and now Charles, are capable of commanding such influence and respect. Because their character is their means of communication, their principles are their politics, and their values and virtues hold strong.