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Queen Elizabeth’s friendship with my grandfather Nelson Mandela showed moral leadership

We are each responding to Queen Elizabeth’s passing in our own way. For me, a South African, a black woman and a proud citizen of the Global South, the monarchy she represented provokes mixed emotions. However, I mourn Queen Elizabeth for what she was to the world: A person of tremendous moral standing. An indisputable leader. And an example to those who come after her.

In a breach of royal protocol, the late queen and my late grandfather Nelson Mandela were friends. I know this not only because that’s how their relationship was so often reported — but because my grandfather would describe her as such to me.

The queen first visited Africa in 1947. She was in Kenya when her father, the reigning monarch, died. During her reign, she visited more than 20 African countries, once joking to Mandela that she’d been to Africa more than “almost anybody.”

But South Africans have a particular soft spot for the late queen because she famously refused to visit South Africa during apartheid, with some even believing the tension between the queen and Margaret Thatcher was partly due to the prime minister’s blatant inaction.

President Nelson Mandela of South Africa, with Queen Elizabeth II
Queen Elizabeth II visited Africa more than 20 times throughout her time in power.

As soon as apartheid crumbled, she rushed to congratulate my grandfather and all South Africans, beating many other world leaders to the punch. The understandable restrictions on her role prevented her from taking public political positions, but her actions thereafter reveal the kind of person she always was.

And that is the legacy she leaves the world. A monarch who remained true to a set of core principles, a commitment to duty, family, country, tradition and God. Over time, her diligence, propriety and inner dignity won over countless millions.

At a time there seemed to be few safe harbors, she stood out. That she did so without political power might seem confounding until you appreciate that political power, too, is dependent on the whims and ways of people to give us the constancy we crave.

That might explain why trust in politicians is at an all-time low and why we live in an increasingly divided and turbulent world. It also suggests why we need to seek out more leaders like Queen Elizabeth and Nelson Mandela — people whose character is their commitment, whose principles are their politics and whose virtues and values do not waver at the first sign of turbulence.

In that regard, King Charles III has big shoes to fill.

Prince Charles, Prince of Wales accompanies South Africa's President Nelson Mandela
Mandela’s family hopes King Charles can fill his mother’s shoes and maintain a good relationship with South Africa.
WireImage/Anwar Hussein

With a pandemic behind us, but an economic recession, fractured global political landscape and global climate emergency confronting us, such moral leadership is more needed today than ever. Yes, political leaders deal with the material reality of day-to-day life, but it is moral leadership that reaches the hearts and minds of people and upholds societies’ deepest values.

One way King Charles can carry forward his mother’s legacy is through the faith traditions that still guide the monarchy. King Charles’ oath to the Church of England and his role as defender of the faith and a protector of faiths enable him to engage the world’s most influential faith leaders and institutions, which carry tremendous social and moral authority around the world.

Like Tutu, Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., moral leaders today must seek out like-minded partners and coalitions and bravely push for change. Consider the pope, a climate-progress advocate who uses his platform to urge people to rethink their relationship with the wider world. And the Aga Khan, who has worked tirelessly to build bridges with other faith communities.

Considering his affection for Islam, King Charles has a historic opportunity to bridge growing divides between East and West, building partnerships with other moral leaders who can push the needle on the greatest issues of our time.

Key amongst such challenges is the divisiveness afflicting the world today. After apartheid’s end, my grandfather would have wanted a much brighter future. Yet competing interests and sociopolitical fractures are testing the resiliency of nation-states and in some cases resulting in all-out conflict. In an increasingly interconnected world, the ripple effects touch us all — and hinder the international community’s ability to unite against the common threats that confront us all.

President Nelson Mandela of South Africa
The late Queen’s leadership was well-respected with her core principles and commitment to duty.
AFP via Getty Images

To address such challenges, there are many initiatives and causes the new king might lend his support to. The world’s largest Islamic nongovernmental organization, the Muslim World League, for example, has made forging closer connections across religious traditions a priority. Its secretary general, Dr. Abdulkarim Al-Issa, is the most senior Islamic cleric to visit Auschwitz.

And while the king may stay silent publicly, his audience with faith leaders and religious groups in the United Kingdom — like the bishop of Norwich and groups like Christian Aid — calling on the government to combat climate change would continue his legacy of environmental stewardship.

As the planet faces enormous challenges and the remarkable decline of trust in politics, political parties and even democratic processes, the new King Charles must become the moral leader the world needs. The polarization we see today can only be mitigated by the force and impact of moral leaders who inspire us to aspire to greater heights — leaders like Queen Elizabeth, Mandela, Tutu and now . . . King Charles III.

Ndileka Mandela is a writer, social activist and head of the Thembekile Mandela Foundation.

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