“Ah, hello, General,” Mandela said, greeting Viljoen with a big smile. “How very good to see you. I have heard so much about you. Thank you very much for accepting my invitation.”
As the world commemorates the 103rd birthday of Mandela this Sunday, this is the perfect time to explore how Mandela helped steer South Africa through some of the same racial and political divisions that engulf the US today.
The standard explanation for Mandela’s success is he forgave his former captors, flashed his luminous smile, and won them over with decency. The truth is more complicated, and so was Mandela.
We can learn a lot about how Mandela operated by looking at three crucial decisions he made when facing some of the same issues that divide America today.
He turned empathy into a political weapon
If you think the mood in the US is ugly today, consider the country Mandela was trying to lead in the early 1990s.
A country built on White supremacy was trying to become a multiracial democracy, and many observers didn’t think they would make it.
“White South Africans were the most privileged people in the world in the 1990s,” Carlin says. “Even if you were a working-class White guy in a factory, you possibly had two [Black] live-in maids and a swimming pool.”
But that’s when Mandela made a crucial decision that stopped South Africa from tumbling over what he called “the brink of disaster.”
Mandela went on national radio and television to appeal for calm. He didn’t just focus on the White supremacist that murdered Hani, he highlighted a White hero, a White woman who witnessed the murder, and helped authorities identify the killer by writing down the license plate of the killer’s getaway car.
Afrikaners had caused Mandela a lifetime of anguish. Their regime had sentenced him to life in prison in 1964. They took him away from his family and his wife. They tortured and assassinated his closest friends.
And yet, in that moment, he chose the highlight the decency of an Afrikaner woman he had never met.
Those who knew Mandela as a younger man say he was a hothead with a temper, but prison changed him. He developed a radial form of empathy that went beyond political expedience.
He addressed the hearts, not the mind of his opponents
Professional athletes refuse to stand for the national anthem. Protesters clash over the removal of Confederate monuments. People still clash over how racism should be taught in the classroom.
Mandela faced many of the same challenges when on April 27, 1994 he became the first democratically elected President of South Africa. He had to decide how South Africa came to terms with the racist symbols of its past.
A debate over South Africa’s national anthem revealed how Mandela adroitly faced this challenge.
“Well, I am sorry. I don’t want to be rude,” Mandela started. “… This song that you treat so easily holds the emotions of many people who you don’t represent yet. With the stroke of a pen, you would take a decision to destroy the very — the only — basis that we are building upon: reconciliation.”
There is a legitimate debate about preserving racist monuments. Mandela, for example, never said that all relics from apartheid’s past should be preserved. What’s important, though, is that he grasped that the cultural symbols of the Afrikaners — their anthem, their love of rugby (which many Black South Africans disdained because it was seen as the sport of their oppressors) and their monuments — weren’t just issues to argue about. It offered opportunities to reach them.
That’s why Mandela often spoke a few words of Afrikaans at the beginning of his speeches. It’s why he publicly rallied behind South Africa’s 1995 Rugby World Cup Final championship run, an enthralling sports story that was made into a Hollywood movie. And its why, Mandela later explained, he spent his years his prison learning Afrikaans, the language of his oppressor while studying their history and reading their favorite poets.
Mandela once said of persuading many Afrikaners to accept him as their leader:
“You don’t address their brains; you address their hearts.”
But Mandela charmed Viljoen by speaking to him in Afrikaans, the general’s native language, while spinning parables about Afrikaner farmers who were tough but fair to Black people. Yet he also spoke bluntly to Viljoen about his own anger because he knew that directness was a trait that Afrikaners valued. Mandela knew what notes to hit because he had spent virtually 30 years addressing the hearts of Afrikaners who had imprisoned him.
“He knows the general better than the general knows him,” Carlin says of that meeting.
Some may reduce Mandela’s charm offensive had political manipulation, but Carlin and others says it went deeper. They say Mandela had a Lincolnesque ability to appeal to the better angels in his political opponent’s nature. He treated them not as the globally reviled henchmen of a criminal regime built on racism, but also as leaders who could transcend their backgrounds.
He knew on some level that they wanted to be seen as more than monsters and dangled opportunities before them to do so.
“Mandela understood on some profound level that ultimately, whether you are Black or White, right wing or left wing, is ultimately a function of change things for which you have no control,” Carlin says. “Political views are like the dress you wear, but underneath them is a flesh and blood human being. If you cut through those and start finding the heart and appeal to their generosity, you’re going to make them feel better about themselves.”
That’s why Carlin and others observe a curious pattern when some of the toughest enforcers of apartheid talk about their relationship with Mandela. Many of them cry.
Tutu says Mandela made the men realize on some level that apartheid had also victimized them.
“They recognized that the dehumanization of Black South Africans had also led to the dehumanization of White South Africans,” she says. “They could not fully live as human in a system that dehumanized the vast majority of South Africans.”
He showed that a leader’s integrity matters
None of Mandela’s empathy or sensitivity toward his enemy’s culture would have made any difference if he didn’t possess another quality. Calin calls it a “diamond-like” integrity.
The contemporary political scene is filled with slippery leaders who exude dishonesty and moral cowardice. A former president makes it to the White House despite being a habitual liar. A major political party embraces the “big lie” that a presidential election was stolen. A never-ending stream of scandals routinely reveals the gap between a politician’s public pronouncements and their private conduct.
But many say there was little separation between the private and the public Mandela. Sure, he could disarm political opponents with public displays of empathy. But he did the same in private, treating everyone with what he called “ordinary respect.”
After Mandela left office, he heard that the now-adult son of his former jailer at died in a car accident. The infant boy he once held in a jail cell as he teared up was gone. He flew to his former jailer’s home and spent the afternoon consoling him, Carlin says.
“There was no political payoff to it,” Carlin says. “He just did it out of kindness and loyalty.”
Mandela’s integrity made his political opponents look small. In 1985, when South Africa’s leadership felt the pressure of a growing international campaign to release Mandela, they offered him a deal. Reject violence as a tactic to fight apartheid, obey the country’s security laws, and we will release you.
“I cherish my freedom dearly, but I care even more for your freedom,” Mandela wrote. “I cannot and will not give any undertaking at a time when I and you, the people, are not free. Your freedom and mine cannot be separated.”
Lies may offer politicians short-term gain, but Mandela’s integrity proved instrumental for one of his greatest triumphs. When Viljoen, the South African general, was asked to identify the decisive factor that persuaded him to abandon leading an insurrection, he cited one person.
“The character of the opponent — whether you can trust him, whether you believe he is genuinely for peace,” Viljoen told Carlin in the book, “Invictus.” The important thing when you sit down and negotiate with the enemy is the character of the people you have across the table from you and whether they carry their people’s support. Mandela had both.”
“Go and have yourself a well-earned rest, Mr. President,” Viljoen said as Mandela looked on. “Go and lie in the shadow of a tall tree.”
We need Mandela’s example more than ever.
Analysis: How the Nelson Mandela’s example of radical empathy can help the US today