Why you should care
Because one of these five leaders might someday be their nation’s Nelson Mandela.
Check out all of the stories in OZY’s exclusive series on The Next Mandelas:
- Meet the Teacher Who Dares to Speak With Boko Haram.
- A Mandela Model for Ethiopia? He’s Writing the Script.
- He’s a Real Challenger in Cambodia’s Sham Election.
- Is She the Mandela of the Mapuche, or a Murderous Terrorist?
- This Former Street Kid Is Harnessing the Favelas’ Untapped Political Power.
Nelson Mandela cuts a unique figure on the stage of history. The South African leader, who would have turned 100 on Wednesday, was not only an iconic resistance leader but also a national figure who emerged from 27 years in prison to embrace his jailers and lead a new post-apartheid South Africa. Mandela’s death in 2013 has left a rather large pair of shoes to be filled, and anyone hoping to do so will require a story of extraordinary determination, triumph over adversity and resilience against oppression. And while there may never be another Mandela, one can see aspects of his story and his character in many politicians and activists today who are challenging injustice, enduring prison or engaging in their own struggle to improve their homelands.
In the coming days, OZY will launch an original series profiling, one by one, the Mandela-esque world figures you’ve never heard of. For now, here are some of the better-known leaders in the running. Could one of these five people become the next Mandela for their country?
Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, Vietnam
From 1962 to 1990, Mandela was incarcerated and transferred between several prisons in an effort, among other things, to separate him from the broader freedom struggle. In 2016, Vietnamese authorities sentenced influential activist Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, 38, who blogs under the pen name “Mother Mushroom” about issues ranging from police brutality to freedom of expression, to 10 years in prison for “conducting propaganda against the state.” Quynh’s imprisonment comes as part of a wider effort by Vietnam’s Communist Party leaders to suppress political dissent. “Democracy just doesn’t exist in Vietnam,” says Tuong Vu, a professor of political science at the University of Oregon. Quynh, who continues to fight back and engage in hunger strikes from her prison cell, has become a symbol of popular resistance, helping to unite dissenting voices in a county that seems poised for a powerful democratic awakening.
Leopoldo López, Venezuela
Mandela demonstrated that one did not need to be in power, in office or even out of prison to become a key leader of a popular resistance. Another influential political leader who has been galvanizing the opposition in his home country despite his own recent arrest and lengthy prison sentence is Leopoldo López of Venezuela. The 47-year-old Harvard graduate has founded two major opposition political parties and organized widespread demonstrations that led to his arrest in 2014. Recently transferred to house arrest from a military prison on the condition that he remain silent, López has been anything but when it comes to criticizing the leaders of Venezuela, which is reeling from high inflation and shortages of food and medicine.
Anwar Ibrahim, Malaysia
Throughout his lengthy incarceration, Mandela maintained the support and affection of South Africa’s Black population, and after his release rose to lead negotiations about ending apartheid before becoming the nation’s first Black president. Anwar Ibrahim, a beloved former deputy prime minister in Malaysia, seems poised for a similar transition from prison to power. Having spent most of the past two decades imprisoned for, or fighting against, widely criticized charges of sodomy, the 70-year-old reformist recently received a full pardon thanks to Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, the man who sent him to prison in the first place but who now says he will hand Anwar power within two years. But can the exiled icon translate his popularity into effective governance like Mandela? A deft politician, Anwar is “all things to all people, and he operates successfully and happily on that basis,” says Clive Kessler, Malaysia expert and emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales in Australia, but that same chameleon-like charm could limit his ability to make the hard decisions a transformative leader needs to make.
Tawakkol Karman, Yemen
Another influential leader and activist, and one who shares Mandela’s (early) nonviolent resistance tactics and persistence in the face of overwhelming odds, is Yemeni journalist Tawakkol Karman, often called “the Mother of the Revolution.” In 2005, Karman co-founded the group Women Journalists Without Chains to promote democratic freedoms in Yemen, and she led a number of demonstrations and sit-ins that culminated with the 2011 nonviolent revolution in Yemen. Karman became the first Yemeni and the first Arab woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize as a result. The 39-year-old continues to be at the forefront of the human rights struggle in Yemen, trying to draw the world’s eyes to the plight of the millions there suffering from hunger and disease in a war-torn nation.
Malala Yousafzai, Pakistan
Mandela remains a leading example of how an inspirational leader can transcend their homeland’s troubles to become a symbol of freedom to a broader community. Shortly after Mandela’s death, Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai, who was shot in the head by the Taliban because of her activism as a teenager, called Mandela “my leader” and a “perpetual inspiration.” If any activist today can aspire to Mandela’s moral authority and succeed at inspiring hearts and minds across the world in the broader global fight against injustice, it is Yousafzai, who became the youngest person to win a Nobel Peace Prize in 2014. Now 21 years old and a student at Oxford University, she remains an outspoken advocate for girls’ education with global visibility.
Could one of the above figures eventually, like Mandela, come to embody both their nation’s struggles and the political force needed to push past them? It’s true, as Kessler puts it, that “not all ‘prison graduates’ are morally, intellectually, politically equal.” And even those figures once hailed as future Mandelas, such as Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi — under fire for turning a blind eye to her country’s persecution of the Rohingya minority group — can see their reputations come crashing down to earth. Still, the future Mandela may be out there and. Look out for the next instalments of OZY’s original series.