What Made Nelson Mandela Such a Powerful Statesman?

Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s Liberator as Prisoner and President, Dies at 95 - NYTimes.com

Consider this answer to the most frequently asked question about how Mandela could forgive his enemies so easily:

And as president, from 1994 to 1999, he devoted much energy to moderating the bitterness of his black electorate and to reassuring whites with fears of vengeance.

The explanation for his absence of rancor, at least in part, is that Mr. Mandela was that rarity among revolutionaries and moral dissidents: a capable statesman, comfortable with compromise and impatient with the doctrinaire.

When the question was put to Mr. Mandela in an interview for this obituary in 2007 — after such barbarous torment, how do you keep hatred in check? — his answer was almost dismissive: Hating clouds the mind. It gets in the way of strategy. Leaders cannot afford to hate.

via Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s Liberator as Prisoner and President, Dies at 95 – NYTimes.com.

Mandela’s strategic vision was unpolluted.  As Paul J. H. Shoemaker of Wharton points out, three key decisions illustrated his brilliant leadership capacity.  By turning down Presiden’t Botha’s amnesty offer, making peace after Chris Hani’s assassination, and foregoing a second term, this “master of symbolism” reinforced his larger goals “by being magnanimous toward his former enemies.”

According to Jena McGregor in WaPo last summer, Mandela had mastered many of the other related skills of leadership–including letting people take credit for his own ideas, play the role, and even to avoid grandstanding (take note politicos and diplomats):

“Long speeches, the shaking of fists, the banging of tables and strongly worded resolutions out of touch with the objective conditions do not bring about mass action and can do a great deal of harm to the organisation and the struggle we serve.” (Presidential address to the ANC Transvaal Congress, also known as the “No Easy Walk to Freedom” speech, Transvaal, South Africa, Sept. 21, 1953)

Don’t forget that he fought with vigor against violent, determined, and historically-justified opponents–seen through this series of posters and the Frontline biopic, The Long Walk of Nelson Mandela. It makes you appreciate his courage and kindness even more–and illustrates so clearly what a statesman really is.

Also, take a look at the Voice of Mandela NYT interactive feature–a treasure of historical inspiration and rhetorical power.


6 thoughts on “What Made Nelson Mandela Such a Powerful Statesman?”

  1. A huge black market developed in China when it introduced two types of currency. The first was the RMB, the local currency, and the second was the FEC, the only currency that foreigners could use. That prevented local chinese from buying imports, the had to buy Chinese products, but Foreigners could buy Chinese products using FEC.

    I think that one of Mandela’s greatest skills was that he didn’t just act the role of a statesman, he WAS a statesman. When leaders of the ANC were assassinated, or when he discovered that his wife had betrayed him through the media, he did not allow those events to change his demeanor. In stark contrast to much of what we see in American politics, Mandela did not just act the part, he lived the symbolic life that his image built for him. It is interesting to draw parallels between Mandela and Martin Luther King, because their lives followed quite similar tracks. Both participated in civil rights movements against oppressive governments over roughly the same period of time, both understood the power of non-violent resistance and the importance of symbols. Both leaders suffered problems in their marriage. But there was a distinct difference between the two; Nelson had self-discipline and sensitivity towards the conservative elements within his country.

    By the time MLK was assassinated, his power in the civil rights movement was waining because he had angered people within his own party by taking credit for protests he had not organized, and because he had muddied his agenda on civil rights with anti-war protest in Vietnam. Had MLK not been killed by a sniper, he probably would not have attained his immortal status within the annals of American history.

    In contrast, Nelson Mandela took very deliberate steps after he was elected president to reassure supporters of the old regime that their fears would not be realized. Mandela’s movement wasn’t just about the liberation of blacks, it was about creating a peaceful society in a country that stood on the brink of all out racial war. That Mandela lived to age 95 after becoming the leader of such a divided nation is evidence of his commitment to equality and his magnanimous nature.

    In another interesting comparison, our current president has repeatedly cited Mandela as his hero; which is understandable. The problem is that Obama seems to have ridden to office on a similar platform as Mandela while not having the same mandate as Mandela. The U.S.’s problems are not based in racial injustice, nor is a “symbolic” presidency such as Mandela’s going to be acceptable to the American people. The characteristics that made Mandela such a powerful figure: refinement, the expectation that he should be treated with respect, and desire for equality have all been hallmarks of the Obama presidency. However, Obama seems to have missed the boat when it comes to compromising the way that made Mandela’s presidency a success instead of a bloodbath. At the beginning of his presidency, President Obama’s rhetoric was very bipartisan, but in substance Obama has shown little evidence that he is comfortable with compromise. As much as we complain that our politics are “polarized”, it’s hard for me to believe that our divisions come anywhere close to that of South Africa’s circa 1994, so to claim that the political differences between Republicans and Democrats are irreconcilable is ridiculous. For a president who rode into office on the promise of healing the divisions created by the Bush years, he certainly hasn’t done much to help the situation. Such is the difference between an unyielding idealist and a statesman.

  2. I think just kind of on a fundamental level, Nelson Mandela was such a powerful statesman because he wasn’t in it to be a statesman. He wasn’t in it for the power. Mandela was a leader who was genuinely concerned for the welfare of his country and its people, and that is how he led. He let others take the lead on certain things, he chose not to prosecute certain things, and he was willing to forgive those who wronged him, while still being strong in the face of the racism and other things that plagued South Africa when he took over. He truly was a model statesman, because he was concerned more with his country than with his title.

    I cannot help but wonder how the current world order would be different if more world leaders were a little bit more like Nelson Mandela- more concerned with their countries than with the power they wield. A selfless world is one I want to live in, and at least as far as I know, that’s the one that Nelson Mandela was trying to create.

  3. Regardless of all these traits described above, Nelson Mandela had something that very few have in our world today. He had the drive to make change. People are comfortable with what they have, and they don’t bother to change their own situation. Nelson Mandela seized the opportunity that he saw when the blacks were being oppressed in South Africa during Apartheid. It is important to realize that no matter how hard things are we can always accomplish our goals if we are willing to sacrifice for that. Nelson Mandela was willing to sacrifice 27 years of his life for this purpose of ending Apartheid. I think that more than just an example of love and equality, Nelson Mandela also set an example of endurance and perseverance. If more people decided to make sacrifices in their lives and dedicate everything to a good cause, maybe we could have a better world where people are more selfless, and more would be accomplished with less suffering.

  4. Men like Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela were so incredibly influential in post-apartheid South Africa because they genuinely believed in forgiveness and reconciliation. In the case of Mandela, he spend over 20 years imprisoned by the South African government, yet he was able to learn to not hate the white man. This astounds me, but I imagine it was very powerful for helping black South Africans move on from what Afrikaners had done to them. If Nelson was able to be transformed from a violent rebel to a peacemaker, then certainly others could follow his example. He wasn’t perfect, but that’s what makes him human and possible to relate to. If he had been a peacemaker his whole life, then he may not have had so much influence in helping South Africa finding her identity as a nation where blacks and whites could live together.

  5. I read the blog post and was floored to hear an opinion of Mandela from someone with a unique interest and involvement in South Africa at the height of Mandela’s involvement. Frankly I was inspired. I can’t profess to know a whole lot about Mandela, but this was my favorite part of the post: “Because who now can boast of a long-term view of the future? Who is looking past the inadequacies of the moment to a better dispensation? Who really works to see and imagine a place, a nation, a world in which we might all want to live and then plots the distance between here and there?” Mandela did just that, and that impresses me. So often I myself, in my own life and in my grand aspirations, want to be someone who not only dreams, but does. It’s much harder than it seems. In my limited knowledge, that is what inspires me about Mandela.

  6. I think what made Mandela so profound a leader was his depth of humility. If you think about it, the greatest leaders in history have indeed been those who have sought change and revolution, but have also borne a spirit of humility and dignity. Leaders like George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Gandhi, etc. who have had such faith in the decency of mankind, have been the most effective in their leadership roles, and have left a lasting legacy of what a true leader should be. I feel that Nelson Mandela embodied such leadership skills. With his dignity and his determination, with his humility and hope for the future, he was able to really effect change and earn the respect of his people (and the people of the rest of the world, for that matter) in return

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