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Lessons from Mandela’s leadership

By Andrew M. Mwenda

It’s possible to risk one’s political career and compromise without being compromised

The younger Mandela was a militant who believed that apartheid could only be defeated through armed struggle. As he grew older, Mandela re- alised that this would be a long and costly route. He felt it was possible to end apart- heid through negotiations.


But changing one’s stance can be misunderstood in politics and many politicians fear to do so lest they are accused of selling out. Yet when he was transferred from Robben Island, the hotbed of militant politics, to Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town, Mandela on his own decided to secretly contact the apartheid rulers suggesting talks.

“I had concluded that the time had come when the struggle could best be pushed forward through negotiations,” he wrote in Long Walk to Freedom, “If we did not start a dialogue soon, both sides would be plunged into a dark night of oppression, violence and war.”

This was a risky undertaking since the official position of his political party, the African National Congress (ANC), was not to have any discussions with the regime. In a 1962 interview, Mandela had argued that it was futile to try to talk to a regime, which responded to peaceful protest with savage attacks against unarmed and defenseless people.

Thus, when the ANC heard that Man- dela had secretly initiated these talks, some of the more militant members accused him of being a traitor. This accu- sation was also written in a semi official circular distributed among its top leader- ship discouraging members from dealing with him.

These accusations became even more entrenched because Mandela had now been placed in a nice house inside the prison. In the house he had a sofa set, a television set, refrigerator, cooker, a microwave, a personal chef, a swimming pool, and he would wear tailored suits and was allowed visitors. Which prisoner lives like that?

Talk spread within ANC that these comforts were bribes the apartheid system had thrown at Mandela; he had sold out. But Mandela understood that it was possible to compromise without being compromised; his confidence was derived from his integrity. As he said, you make peace with your enemies, not your friends.

In Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela says that the apartheid regime was afraid to begin talks because it would be seen as weak while the ANC leadership shied away from talking because it feared its base would see them as being soft on the enemy or compromised by him.

This is the trap leaders find themselves in – how to reach out to the other side without alienating their base. One can see it with many political leaders in Uganda, Africa and even western democracies. Fearful to alienate their base, politicians shy away from compromise. Mandela act- ed differently partly because he enjoyed significant political credibility but also because he was willing to risk his political career in pursuit of what he believed.

What made it possible for Mandela to talk to individuals who tormented and humiliated him? It is because he appreci- ated that his struggle was not against

the individuals managing and enforc- ing the apartheid system but the system itself. Like Martin Luther King, he saw his oppressors as victims of an oppres- sive system as well. This made Mandela appreciate that the leaders of apartheid could be strategic allies in the search for a solution for South Africa.

Thus, rather than fight the leaders of apartheid, he chose to seduce them to accept surrender. This also changed Man- dela; he realised that rather than attack whatever evil he saw in his opponents, he needed to appeal to the goodness in them. To achieve this, Mandela realised that he must put his struggle above his personal suffering.

He was being humiliated and mistreat- ed in jail by white superintendents. This had the potential to make him a bitter and angry man. But Mandela realised that if he succumbed to bitterness, it would con- sume him with hatred.

This would divert him from the struggle for liberation to a personal search for revenge, the pitfall Robert Mugabe has fallen into. He chose to ignore the indignities inflicted on him by the jailers. By embracing his jailers and treating them as normal human beings, Mandela won them over as well.

Prison gave Mandela a prolonged period of time to think and reflect. He wanted to learn more and more about his enemy. Therefore, he learnt to read, write and speak Afrikaans, the language of the

Boers. He read their history, their politics and developed interest in their main sport – rugby. He began to write letters to his white tormentors in their own language, Afrikaans.

The first time he met Botha, he began the conversation by talking about the Boer struggle for liberation from the British, their trials and tribulations. Botha was completely amazed and dazzled at Man- dela’s command of Boer history and at this point, Mandela chipped in: don’t you think our struggle mirrors your own peo- ple’s struggles? Botha had been floored!

By learning about his enemies, Man- dela came to appreciate their fears and anxieties. This made him see that his enemies also had interests, which must be addressed and attended to by those who fought them.

In his first press interview upon his release, he argued that the chal- lenge was how to reconcile black aspira- tions with white fears. That for there to be a transition to democracy, black people needed to put in place structural guaran- tees to give white people confidence in a future democratic south Africa.

Mandela understood that you can disagree with someone without being disagreeable. That it is important to try and understand the point of view of your enemies, to listen to their concerns, rec- ognise their interests, understand their motivations and where possible ascertain their needs. This makes it possible to com- promise with your enemies without giv- ing away your principles.

However, we also learn that every act of compromise means that you give and take. For example, Mandela clearly under- stood that for blacks to get what they wanted politically, they needed to com- promise on what whites had accumulated economically.

Thus, although the political institutions of apartheid were dismantled, the economic structure and its racial imbalances that it had created were left intact. Mandela understood that political change was primary and that economic change would come – not through a revo- lutionary reordering of property rights – but through evolutionary means.

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