Learning from Mandela

Published December 6, 2013

Nelson Mandela is inextricably linked to the emergence of post-apartheid South Africa. Although he long withdrew from active politics after a one-term presidency (1994-99), he remained his country’s moral conscience in terms of domestic issues, and a principled defender of human rights internationally.

But despite the numerous biographies published so far – and with many more likely to appear – as well as his own 15-million-copies-sold autobiography, with a movie version soon due for release, we are still lacking a full understanding of why Mandela has emerged as a truly global icon. Bitterly opposed ideological foes all praise Mandela. From the Iranian regime to the Israeli prime minister, from Cuba’s Castro to the Bush administration, Mandela has been unequivocally endorsed. When the savvy former German foreign minister Joschka Fischer was asked by Der Spiegel in 2006 to name the international personalities who had most impressed him most during his time in office, the interviewer expected him to mention Bill Clinton. Not so: Fischer insisted on Mandela and Pope Paul II.

Yet Mandela is not a Churchill, Martin Luther King or Obama-style charismatic leader or populist ideologue in the Castro mold who mesmerized masses. His model was Gandhi, although with less philosophical depth and austerity in fashionable clothes .Mandela resisted the personality cult some wanted to develop around him in South Africa, because that would “reduce followers to blind sheep” instead of critically engaged citizens. Mandela himself always rejected the idea of hierarchical leadership and had subjected himself consciously to the ‘organizational discipline’ and collective decision-making of the African National Congress, sometimes to the point of personal humiliation when he inveighed against his successor’s HIV/Aids denialism.

Like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Mandela’s glowing reputation is much greater abroad than among his own ranks at home. In the United States, Hollywood celebrities, rockstars and corporate executives paid heavily to have their pictures taken with the obliging visitor, although the US conceded to official contacts with the “terrorist” ANC only in 1988. Thus Mandela became indispensable as the unabashed fundraiser for the ANC during the 1990s. Since few would dare to turn down Mandela’s often vaguely worded requests for contributions, he could act as the generous benefactor to many worthy – but also unworthy – causes, including a problematic contribution of SAR 1m ($ 100.000) to a financially troubled Jacob Zuma , a few days after he was sacked as ANC deputy-president in 2005. At the same time the many hangers-on exploited the Mandela name, including his trusted personal lawyer who sold forged ‘Mandela’ paintings.

Internationally, Mandela’s iconic status impacted beyond South Africa’s borders. He pressed the warring factions into a power-sharing constitution in Burundi, although the civil war did not cease. Before his retirement, he continued to lead by example, whether on AIDS education or as the lone critic of a Nigerian military dictatorship when nobody dared to follow him. In contrast, his successor, Thabo Mbeki, supported the Nigerian military strongman Sani Abacha after the execution of the Ogoni activist Ken Saro-Wiwa. Mandela also intervened successfully in the long simmering Lockerbie bombing crisis, by sending his chief of staff to work out a deal with Ghaddhafi in Libya.

On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Mandela considered it the “great moral problem of our times” and pronounced that “our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians”. However, unlike Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who together with many ANC activists, advocates boycotts and sanctions of Israel, Mandela shied away from the apartheid analogy. In 1999, he made a low-key stopover in Israel after his presidency, and once remarked that many countries had invited him for an official visit, but not Israel after his release in 1990. In light of Mandela’s basic solidarity with Palestinian self-determination, that caused no surprise. While he resented the military and diplomatic cooperation between Israel and the apartheid regime, Mandela also paid tribute to the involvement of many South African Jews in the anti-apartheid struggle. On his only Middle East excursion as “a private person” Mandela visited Iran, Syria and Gaza and was received everywhere as if he were a serving president. However, he was mistaken in hoping that he could act as a peace broker in similar ways as he had demonstrated in South Africa.

Why a leader appeals to followers is a useful route for assessment. Followers often project subconscious desires onto romanticized leaders. Mandela has been mythologized and made into a magician, from triggering rugby victories (as portrayed in the Hollywood film Invictus) to preventing racial wars. When The Economist (in October 2012) editorializes about a Mandela “whose extraordinary magnanimity helped avert a racial bloodbath”, it implies that without him blacks would have slaughtered whites. However, all things considered, there was relatively little racially motivated violence against whites by the black majority. It was the potentially dangerous white right-wing that was appeased by Mandela’s conciliatory gestures. Former racists could absolve themselves by praising Mandela as the savior and reconciler of the country. Above all, Mandela calmed the deadly interparty animosities between the ANC and Inkatha by practicing inclusiveness and preaching forgiveness. He appointed controversial Inkatha Chief Buthelezi as his minister of Home Affairs.

Mandela’s historic contribution lies in his willingness to risk starting negotiations with his adversary, when such initiatives were unpopular among his own comrades. Alleviating simultaneously white fears about black revenge, and black suspicion of collaboration, was no easy task. Mandela grasped the historical moment as a true leader. Even without a Mandela, the transition from racial minority rule to a universal franchise would have happened sooner or later. Mandela hugely facilitated this process by his realistic assessment of the political forces at play. While the “insurrectionists” in his ANC exhorted the slogan that “you cannot win at the negotiating table what you have not won at the battlefield,” Mandela persuaded the movement that neither side could win at the battlefield, unless you risk destroying the country in a drawn out civil war. In this stalemate only negotiations with the opponents promised a solution. One can learn from this insight that demonizing a hated enemy as evil is counterproductive to peaceful coexistence. Evil begs to be eliminated. However, if you have to live with a collective enemy in the same country elimination or retribution is no option for reconciliation. The enemy has to be redefined as a political adversary. Only a freely negotiated political compromise guarantees peace.

In these negotiations during these difficult four years after his release from 27 years of incarceration, Mandela proved no sellout, as his divorced wife Winnie has falsely suggested. His relationship with his white counterpart of the initial power-sharing arrangement, F.W.de Klerk, was always tense. Yet in crucial moments Mandela also assisted de Klerk when peace was at stake. When the popular leader of the ANC military wing (MK) and Communist Party chair, Chris Hani, was assassinated by a right-wing fanatic on Easter 1993, the country teetered at the brink of mass violence. At the request of de Klerk, Mandela went on TV and calmed the country down by pointing out that it was an Afrikaner woman who gave the police the decisive tip for arresting the assassins.

It was common knowledge that Thabo Mbeki was not Mandela’s first choice as his successor in 1998. Mandela’s choice would have been Cyril Ramaphosa, the popular leader of the National Union of Mine Workers and ANC chief negotiator with the Afrikaner nationalists, later turned billionaire businessman, and finally elected ANC vice-president by an overwhelming margin in December 2012. Mandela subsequently praised Mbeki as “the best president South Africa ever had.” In turn, Mbeki basked in Mandela’s glory, but simultaneously resented operating in his shadow. Insiders knew about their policy differences and private spats to the extent that an annoyed President Mbeki at one stage would not even take phone calls from his predecessor for several weeks. It was also reported that a retired Mandela conducted sensitive conversations in his garden, because he suspected his residence had been bugged.

Mandela’s example of engaging in open-ended negotiations without preconditions should inspire political leaders of other intractable ethnic conflicts around the world. A Mandela on both sides of the Syrian civil war or the Israeli-Palestinian strife would not guarantee a solution, because historical conditions differ. Yet at least both sides could truly claim to have exhausted all avenues of pragmatic compromise instead of letting a conflict simmer without hope. Are millions of lives lost in intractable wars worth the insistence on a socialist revolution or the capitulation of an ethnic adversary in a stalemate?

Copyright © Heribert Adam 2013

Nelson Mandela died the evening of December 5, 2013, age 95, after an extended illness.

Heribert Adam is Professor Emeritus of Sociology at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver and a Fellow at the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study (STIAS). His new book, with Kogila Moodley, is Imagined Liberation. E-mail: adam@sfu.ca

 Further reading:
Heribert Adam’s site at Simon Fraser University: http://www.socanth.sfu.ca/people/heribert_adam
Behind Houghton Walls: a poem published by F&O about Nelson Mandela’s last days. By Iain T. Benson.
Facts and Opinions’ Frontlines roundup about Nelson Mandela’s death December 5.