Why you should care

There aren’t many political leaders around the world who have followed Mandela’s example, but a rare few are keeping his spirit alive. 

Nelson Mandela wasn’t the only freedom fighter of the 20th century who helped his people overthrow colonial-era rulers. He’s just one of a very, very small number of political leaders who didn’t try to build a totalitarian system of his own after coming to power.

That and Mandela’s inspiring ability to forgive his opponents and thereby unite a racially riven nation are the traits that made him such a standout in history — particularly on his own continent. The vast majority of his counterparts across post-colonial Africa have a dismal record when it comes to actually governing the countries they fought to free — amassing power, fostering corruption, and playing on divisions between races and ethnicities for their own political advantage was the norm. Unfortunately, that trend holds across much of the rest of the developing world, as well.

Leaders who embody elements of his legacy make personal sacrifices for political principles and look to unite, rather than divide, their people.

There are, however, some exceptions.

Mandela was one of four African leaders who have been singled out for a good governance award sponsored by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, the Sudanese-born telecom magnate’s eponymous charity. The award, created in 2007 to incentivize democratic behavior, recognizes former African heads of state who were democratically elected, abided by term limits and ”demonstrated exceptional leadership” while in office.

Though he left office well before the prize was created, Mandela was one of the first to receive the award. The other former presidents to win the prize were Joaquim Chissano, who helped bring democracy to Mozambique after more than a decade of civil war; Festus Mogae of Botswana, who worked to combat the AIDS pandemic in his country; and Pedro Pires, who successfully promoted economic development in Cape Verde. All three men have remained active in sub-Saharan Africa — brokering peace, promoting HIV-AIDS awareness and touting democratic values — since leaving office.

The Ibrahim Foundation did not award the prize in 2009, 2012 or 2013 because of a dearth of deserving African leaders.

Still, there are other world leaders who embody elements of Mandela’s legacy — those rare public figures who make personal sacrifices for political principles and look to unite, rather than divide, their people.

José Mujica

Color tight headshot of Jose looking towards the camera

President of Uruguay Jose Mujica

Source Edu Anfrade/Getty

Uruguay’s president has been in the headlines this week thanks to his country’s decision to legalize marijuana — the first country in the world to do so. But Mujica himself is a much more interesting story. Like Mandela, the former leftist guerilla embraced violence as a means to political change early in his career. That was followed by 14 years in prison, some of it locked in a hole in the ground, which qualified as solitary confinement at the time. After his release he opted to join the political system, first by winning a seat in the legislature in the 1990s and then, in 2009, the presidency.

As president, Mujica has opted to stay in his modest Montevideo home rather than move to Uruguay’s presidential palace, and he donates most of his official salary to charity, which has earned him the nickname “the world’s poorest president,” a label he firmly rejects. ”Those who describe me so are the poor ones,” he told Al Jazeera in October. “My definition of poor are those who need too much.”

Gao Xiaoliang

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Chinese pro-democracy activist Liu Xiaobo

Source Will Burgess/Corbis

Mandela has been a source of inspiration for numerous Chinese dissidents who have been persecuted and thrown in jail over the years for challenging government authority. Gao Xiaoliang, a veteran of the 1989 student protests in Tiananmen Square, told the New York Times last week that if he hadn’t ”had Mandela’s spiritual encouragement” during his time in prison, “I probably would have killed myself.”

“He was in for 27 years. Why should I be afraid of nine years?” Gao said.

Liu Xiaobo

Liu, an author and democracy advocate, is one of China’s most prominent dissidents. Though not an elected leader, he’s been jailed for advocating representative democracy, as Mandela was, and has also been awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts. Liu has even been dubbed ”China’s Nelson Mandela,” a comparison Chinese authorities strenuously deny.

Liu first served prison time after joining in the Tiananmen protests. In 2008, he was one of the leaders of the Charta 08 movement to advance democratic principles in China, earning him an 11-year jail sentence and keeping him from receiving his 2010 Nobel Peace Prize in person.

Sherry Rehman

Sherry speaking towards left of frame with green top on.

Sherry Rehman

Source Micheal BonfigliGetty

As a legislator, Rehman made a name for herself by trying to reform the devout Muslim country’s notorious blasphemy law, which bars anyone from insulting the prophet Muhammad. Violaters are punished with death. The law has been abused over the years to attack minorities, among others.Rehman has made fighting violent extremism in her native Pakistan her life’s work – aiming to calm ethnic and religious tensions in her native country the way Mandela bridged South Africa’s racial divide. The onetime journalist turned legislator turned diplomat heads the Jinnah Institute, a nonprofit organization named after Pakistan’s founding father Mohammed Ali Jinnah. It promotes democracy and human rights, and aims to reduce conflict. One of its most prominent features is its “Extremism Watch” publications, which document sectarian attacks and other violence inspired by religious extremism.

Hardline clerics in Pakistan responded to Rehman’s efforts by issuing a fatwa calling for her death. She came to the United States shortly thereafter, having been appointed ambassador to the U.S. But after a short stint in Washington, D.C., she returned this past summer and continues her work in Pakistan as well as engagement around the globe.

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