Mandela: His Political Life and Leadership Style

Mandela: His Political Life and Leadership Style

As South Africans and others around the world mourn Nelson Mandela’s death and celebrate his life, thoughts turn to his political life, leadership style and genius.

Mandela’s genius stemmed from the way in which he talked about South Africa, according to an analysis by the Council On Foreign Relations.

Mandela did not proselytize a viewpoint so much as build partnerships among different groups that wanted to end apartheid, wrote Ryan Irwin for the Council On Foreign Relations.

In historian Tom Lodge’s words, Mandela’s approach was “primarily about enacting stories … and only secondarily about ideological vision.”

As a young activist in the African National Congress in the 1950s, Mandela was part of a community in which there was a lot of disagreement, Irwin said. African nationalists wanted blacks leading the freedom struggle, communists wanted an end to capitalism and liberals wanted true democracy. Mandela navigated these ideological landmines with unusual dexterity, Irwin writes.

South Africa was an unusually diverse place of African people, European settlers, and Asian migrants.

In the face of this diversity, Mandela blended storytelling and politics brilliantly, Irwin said. As early as 1962, his strategy focused as much on psychology as it did on combat. He said his goal was not to terrorize white society but to “destroy the legality of the government,” mainly by shaping the consciousness of the masses. Mandela said the ANC had to become a “parallel authority in the administration of (South African) justice.” He needed a message that smoothed the disagreements among apartheid’s critics, Irwin wrote.

Mandela’s dexterity in blending storytelling and politics brilliantly was especially effective abroad, Irwin said.

While traveling in the early 1960s, Mandela talked about nationalism throughout decolonized Africa, praised Fidel Castro to Third World leaders, and lauded liberalism to audiences in London. He maintained this “flexibility” after his return to politics in 1990, Irwin said.

Mandela’s anti-apartheid movement was simultaneously a bulwark against neoimperialism (in Cuba) and an extension of the U.S. civil rights movement (in New York). The “new South Africa” would be a “united, democratic, non-sexist and non-racial country,” he said in Sweden in 1990. It would be “firmly aligned with regard to the fundamental and universal issues of human rights, the right and possibility of every individual to full and unfettered development, the right of every country to determine its future, protection of the environment and peace in a world that should be free of regional conflicts and the threat of a nuclear war.” It was a vision to satisfy everyone and the stories he told cultivated the ANC’s international legitimacy, Irwin writes.

Such a strategy required a lot of support, and Mandela had that. After his arrest in 1962, ANC president-in-exile Oliver Tambo, rallied international audiences with speeches and activism, using Mandela’s story to bolster the ANC’s pluralist message.

In South Africa, Mandela’s second wife, Winnie Mandela, was an influential organizer in her own right, tapping into youth sentiment by recasting her husband as a champion of black consciousness in the 1970s, according to  analysis by the Council On Foreign Relations.

In the early 1990s, Mandela argued in public with F. W. de Klerk, the last president of apartheid South Africa. His subordinates within the ANC, Cyril Ramaphosa and Thabo Mbeki, negotiated South Africa’s first multiracial elections with the Nationalist government. By the mid-1990s, Madiba — the clan name that followed Mandela into public life — was just the outward face of an operation moving in several directions at once, Irwin writes.

Mandela’s story changed in the 1990s. He contradicted himself often, in part, Irwin said, because he faced an impossible task. Having designed a strategy that he felt had to reflect the viewpoints of so many different groups, Mandela’s constituency included unemployed squatters, wealthy businessmen, liberal intellectuals, and young nationalists.

Mandela is remembered today mostly for his symbolic acts — gestures that “made South Africans feel good about ourselves,” Activist Desmond Tutu said; acts such as embracing the country’s national rugby team, the Springboks, during the 1995 Rugby World Cup.

Mandela developed actual government policy slowly as he negotiated his country’s constitution between 1994 and 1997, taking a hard line on multiculturalism. He relinquished his commitment to wealth redistribution. At a World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland in 1992, Mandela said he “realized, as never before, that if we wanted investments . . . we had to remove the fear of business.”

Storytelling could only go so far, Irwin wrote.

South Africa today is a reflection of Mandela’s presidency and the grand strategy that preceded it. By cultivating a pluralistic stance toward anti-apartheid activism, Mandela’s ANC successfully ended the legitimacy of South Africa’s minority white government.

These efforts, however, gave rise to unusually high expectations among the supporters who embraced the ANC. The resulting dissonance has made South Africa a paradox, Irwin writes. The country is imbued with a rich vocabulary of civil, political, economic, social, and human rights, but remains plagued by pervasive income inequality, structural unemployment, and widespread poverty.

Would another Nelson Mandela cure South Africa of these ills?

No, Irwin said. The country doesn’t need hope and activism. It needs techies and engineers who can help solve urban blight and rural poverty.

This perhaps would be Mandela’s message to the generation born after 1990. “There are good men and women in all communities,” he said shortly after his retirement in 1999. “The duty of the real leader,” he said, is not only to bring these people into the fold but also to “give them tasks of serving their community.”

Modern South Africa needs a leader who can do the latter.