Mandela: a leader above all others
His character, and a life that kept him off stage for a long period, produced an almost unique mixture of wisdom and innocence
The Guardian, Thursday 5 December 2013.
When Helen Suzman went to see Nelson Mandela on Robben Island in 1967, the first prisoner she encountered was a man called Eddie Daniels, who told her: “Yes, we know who you are. Don’t waste time talking to us. Go and talk to Mandela at the end of the row. He’s our leader.” Daniels’s absolute certainty struck Suzman very forcibly. Although Daniels did not spell it out, she learned later that the prison administration had tried to arrange her tour so that she would not reach Mandela’s cell before her limited time on Robben ran out.
She took the advice, made her way to Mandela’s cell, and found there a quietly eloquent and direct man of imposing physique and great natural authority. Eddie Daniels was of course right: Mandela was indeed the leader, not only of the detainees in the island prison, but of the South African liberation movement as a whole. He had mentors and partners, some in detention with him, some in exile, and some enduring a harassed and persecuted life in South Africa itself, and he had rivals inside and outside the African National Congress.
But he was indubitably the man who came, above all others, to symbolise the struggle of the ANC, from the time when it seemed to have collapsed under the assaults of the apartheid state, to the time of its final successes, when that same state found itself pleading with the ANC to enter a new era in which the structures of oppression would be liquidated.
Yet this leadership, even if we define it as moral rather than practical, remains ultimately something of a mystery. Mandela was not able, during 27 years in prison, to exercise sustained operational control or to take a regular part in ANC decision-making, except toward the very end, when he negotiated with FW de Klerk.
Before he went to jail, his record was of brave failure rather than of significant victory. His attempts, during his early years, to wage, along with others, a legal and non-violent campaign for black rights were stymied by a government which was not only unresponsive but positively preferred to push the ANC into clandestine activity so that it could fragment and criminalise the movement. His reluctant conversion to the military path ended abruptly when he was arrested within days of returning to South Africa to pursue the armed struggle. As a civil rights leader, he was ineffective. As a short-lived guerrilla leader, he was an amateur. And when, released from prison, he became the first president of the new South Africa, he was often inattentive, he discarded his once radical views on the economy, and, arguably, he endorsed the wrong man as his successor. To set against that, he insisted on respect for the judgments of the South African Constitutional Court even when they upset the ANC’s plans, and he refused to support the death penalty.
Mandela was far from alone among 20th-century liberation leaders in achieving stature in prison. Prison could be, as Jawaharlal Nehru observed, a sort of postgraduate preparation for politics. But that was in the relatively easy circumstances of the subcontinent, where Indian National Congress leaders treated detention as an opportunity to draw breath between bouts of challenging the British. The closest parallel today can be found in Aung Sang Suu Kyi, whose years under house arrest similarly led to a sort of canonisation in her own lifetime. There is also already evident a similar element of disillusion. When the sainted person finally enters into something like normal political life and starts to make the compromises and mistakes inseparable from it, something is undoubtedly lost.
A distant parallel would be with the Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan, who has maintained an extraordinary grip on his supporters from his own island prison and is even now negotiating with the Turkish government on something like equal terms. But Öcalan’s cult-like following does not fit the Mandela template. Öcalan is feared and worshipped; Mandela was respected and loved. The secret of Mandela’s leadership lay in the almost unique mixture of wisdom and innocence which his character, and a life that kept him off stage for such a long and critical period, combined to produce.
The wisdom lay in his capacity to grasp at a very early stage the direction of South African history. He knew liberation was a certainty, was unstoppable, and that only the date and the manner were in question. He understood, too, at a time when their physical power was at its greatest, that the Afrikaners were a frightened and vulnerable tribe subject to the same processes of modernisation as all others in South Africa, and that their laager would sooner or later crumble. Through the lens of his own people’s tragedy he was able to perceive theirs. In his speeches at his various trials he laid out the path of compromise and gradual cession of power that Afrikaners (and other whites) would eventually have to follow. Decades later they did, although so belatedly that the grace period Mandela had imagined would ease the transition was greatly curtailed. Mandela’s understanding of the future was also an unequivocally multi-racial one. All would be liberated, not only blacks.
The innocence was a consequence of his years in prison. He came back into politics with an understanding of life rooted in an ideology that had changed and blurred while he was away. He was cut off from the black-on-black violence that had stained the movement during the township wars. His own life experience had narrowed down to the task of maintaining morale and hope in a small community of detainees. All this was in the end to suit him for a task to which he was by personality already inclined – that of reconciliation.
Mandela spoke to his Afrikaner guards with an understanding of their situation to which many found themselves responding. The fiction of the African as a child who needed to be guided by superior whites fell away as his fatherly concern manifested itself to such ordinary men. Mandela’s essential decency contributed to another role closely connected to his view of the future. He represented what could be called a Plan B for the Afrikaner leadership. While it could never be publicly admitted that apartheid might fail, it was privately and increasingly recognised, at least by shrewder minds, that it might well become unworkable. Afrikaner life had been conditioned from its beginning by the idea that anything necessary for the survival of the volk, however distasteful, must in the last resort be embraced. It was this which led to the acceptance, if only after a fight, of British rule. So it proved with ANC rule. Mandela was a guarantee that if the time for compromise came, there would be a strong and moderate partner for peace – strong and moderate not only in himself, but in his influence over the ANC as a whole. Although he had warned of bloodshed, his captors knew that their prisoner’s preference was for the peaceful settlement that in fact took place.
It is hard to remember now how unlikely this once appeared to many observers. The Washington Post correspondent Jim Hoagland wrote in 1972 that “when I arrived in South Africa, it seemed as if Luthuli, Mandela, and Sisulu were perceived dimly, as if they belonged to another time, long past, and long lost”. The apartheid state appeared strong and ruthless, and it had foreign friends, including the United States. Eisenhower was initially reluctant to condemn Sharpeville, and although Johnson was critical, the United States was again close to Pretoria under Nixon. Yet that closeness was not to last long, as South Africa overreached in Angola, and as American attention moved elsewhere. Then, what Steve Biko called the “paper castle” of white power crumbled in a very short period.
The complex and usually bloody business of decolonisation in the world, rolled out over more than half a century, brought many extraordinary leaders to the fore. They were variously brave, far-sighted and dedicated, and also vain, corrupt, incompetent or in other ways betrayers of their earlier promise. The alchemy of character and events made of Mandela a peculiarly unspotted figure. Few could deny a certain sweetness in his personality, and a largeness of mind that had room for all. Black and brown South Africans were lucky in his leadership, while white South Africans, particularly Afrikaners, were more than lucky. Apart from the fact that they had the common sense to preserve his life, they did not really deserve him. Yet he forgave them even that.