Lessons from Mandela

Nelson Mandela

Leadership and Life

By Dawn A Denton

Rolihlahla ‘Nelson’ Mandela was born in 1918 in the tribal village Mvezo in the Eastern Cape. King George V was on the British throne.  Louis Botha, a Boer War hero who captured the young British journalist Winston Churchill, was Prime Minister of the Union of South Africa at the time of Nelson’s birth.

The flu pandemic of 1918 took the lives of approximately 500,000 South Africans, the wine company KWV (Koöperatiewe Wijnbouwers Vereniging van Zuid-Afrika) was founded in Paarl and the Afrikaner Broederbond, a secret, exclusively male, Calvinist organisation, committed to protecting Afrikaner interests, was established in Johannesburg.  South Africa was a challenging place for all its citizens, but especially for black South Africans.

When you understand where Nelson came from, his achievements seem even more special. He had that X-factor, the drive and courage to make a difference.  Not everyone has the same views about Mandela, and his early tactics can be questioned and debated – can they be justified? That is something we have to decide for ourselves, but whatever our feelings are about Nelson Mandela, we can learn from him and we can use his philosophy to see the world differently.

“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” Nelson Mandela

When writer Richard Stengel (collaborator on ‘Long Walk to Freedom’) travelled with Mandela on a small plane to Natal, where Mandela was going to address his Zulu supporters as part of his 1994 presidential election campaign, while airborne one of the engines on the plane failed. There was panic in the cockpit, there was panic at the airport, but sitting quietly on the plane Nelson read his newspaper with a serenity and calm that gave those on the plane some comfort.  Safety on the ground, and in the bullet-proof car that would drive him into one of the most volatile parts of South Africa, he turned to Richard and said’ “Man, I was terrified up there!”

Nelson has been in more frightening situations in his life than many of us will ever experience or even imagine. He faced his fears when he was operating underground, when he was in hiding and on the run, during the Rivonia trial, when he was sentenced, when he was released. It was during his time on Robben Island that he truly learnt how to conquer his fears – other prisoners remember him always standing proud, tall and confidently – he seemed fearless. This gave his comrades inspiration and belief to remain firm in their continued fight for freedom. As a leader he learnt to pretend and ‘put up a front’.

“Take your support base along with youCyril Ramaphosa learnt from Mandela

After a medical procedure in 1985, Nelson was separated from his friends in prison.  He used this opportunity to initiate negotiations with the South African government.  His fellow ANC comrades felt Nelson was ‘selling them out’. They were upset that he had taken this decision on his own, but once he was back in prison with them he went to each of his comrades individually and explained what he was hoping to achieve and why he had things the way he had.  He slowly and deliberately won them all over.  The current president of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa said of Nelson, “He is not a bubble-gum leader – chew it now and throw it away.” He was always firm in his commitment to those who had been on the journey with him – without their support he would not have achieved what he did.

Africa Cradle

“It is wise to persuade people to do things and make them think it was their idea.” Nelson Mandela

As a child Nelson spent many happy days herding the cattle. “You can only lead them from behind” he said.  He explained that from behind you can see what they need and where they are going, and then guide them accordingly.

When Nelson’s father died in 1927, when he was only 9 years old, Jongintaba, the tribal chief, took him in as his own and raised Nelson, teaching him about leadership and life. Nelson watched the tribal elders sit with their tribal king, in a circle to discuss an issue or a community concern. He learnt so much from watching how the king would let everyone speak before he entered the debate himself. “Don’t enter the debate too soon”, Nelson said later in his life. As a chief, a leader or a king, your job is not to make decisions, but to form a consensus and you do this by listening.  Nelson was a master of listening. Often in heated meetings in his home in Houghton, which included Cyril Ramaphosa and Thabo Mbeki, you would hear his guests shouting at him, accusing him of taking things too slowly and not being decisive.  But when everyone had finished expressing their views, Nelson would quietly summarise their points, interwoven with his own thoughts to steer the others in the direction he wanted them to go.  By leading from behind and listening, your followers will believe they are in front.

Learn from children and remember to smile

Rolihlahla, Nelson’s real name in Xhosa translates to ‘pulling down the branch of the tree’ but in real terms this means ‘troublemaker’.  There was always a childlike naughtiness about Nelson and he felt at ease with children. As a child he hunted, played with sticks, (one of his favourite pastimes was stick fighting) and stole mielies. Sadly, being behind bars for 27 years meant he did not have the pleasure of watching his children grow up, teaching them to ride a bicycle, reassuring them after a bad dream, rocking them to sleep, or just holding their hand. Children love to hold hands with people they trust. For Nelson, “those who are ready to join hands can overcome the greatest of challenges”.

And of course, children love to smile. Nelson’s smile drew people to him and warmed the nation. 

Cyril Ramaphosa said of Nelson, “The smile was the message”. For the white South Africans his smile showed the power of forgiveness.  For Black South Africans his smile was of their warrior who was leading the way – we can do this and we will. Even if he was bitter (who wouldn’t be?), he knew he had to project positivity and happiness.  Nelson’s wish was to “be able to sleep until eternity with a broad smile on my face”.

In this July 24, 2007, file photo, former South African President Nelson Mandela, who turned 89 years old on July 18, laughs while celebrating his birthday with children at the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund in Johannesburg. South Africa’s president says, Thursday, Dec. 5, 2013, that Mandela has died. He was 95. (AP Photo/Denis Farrell, File)

When faced with an issue or a decision in business or politics, it is “not a question of principle; it is a question of tactics” Nelson Mandela

Nelson was very clear about this.  He displayed strong, unwavering principles.  He would not rest until apartheid had been overthrown and South Africans were equal. In 1961 he said, “The struggle is my life. I will continue to fight for freedom until the end of my days.”

But in 1973 the South African government offered to release him to the Transkei, which was a free black state and he declined. It wasn’t enough. Again in 1985 he was offered his freedom if he denounced violence – he again refused. He was firm in what he wanted to achieve, but it was about tactics. He was a master tactician, and he knew how the South African government would respond to him and he knew he would take the lead in the negotiations if he ‘played’ it his way, tactically.

“Things will be better in the long run” Nelson Mandela

“He is a historical man. He was thinking way ahead of us. He had prosperity in mind: How will they view us?” Cyril Ramaphosa said of Nelson.  This he learnt in prison. He had a life-sentence to consider how history would view him, his colleagues, and the ANC. This was his focus, his long-term vision and commitment. In complex decisions, Nelson knew there were many ways to to go, but by looking forward, one can ‘see’ the outcome for the solution. Always have history in mind.

Dress appropriately but comfortably

Nelson, a tall man, always carried himself with confidence. In the early days when he was a young poor student, he still made an effort to look good. Once he qualified as a lawyer, he used the little money he had to get his suits fitted by an Indian tailor and he would wear that suit until he could wear it no more.  He understood the value of physical presence in leadership and how this could advance his cause.  Nelson believed that he wasn’t a great speaker, but by creating a ‘signature’ look, he could engage people. He wasn’t comfortable in a suit and tie, especially not a bow tie, “Every time I put on that thing …I find it difficult to even talk” and so the colourful Madiba shirts became his ‘thing’ as well as the famous Madiba toyi-toyi.

Johannesburg, SOUTH AFRICA: Former South African President and Peace Nobel prize Nelson Mandela (R) meets, 22 September 2005, US actor Tim Robbins (not in picture) at his house in Johannesburg. Robbins is currently shooting a film in South Africa. AFP PHOTO GIANLUIGI GUERCIA (Photo credit should read GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images)

Keep your enemy close

According to Nelson, people act in their own interest” so, he invited those on the opposing side to dinner, he rang them on their birthdays, gave them gifts, went to their family funerals and he would often consult with them or ask their opinion, all as a political opportunity for him to keep them close. He used his charm to engage his rivals as he did with Chris Hani, the chief of staff of the ANC’s military wing.  This closeness was not because of shared political views, but because of Hani’s connections with the mining industry, big business and political opposition. Even his first cabinet was filled with people he detested and who had imprisoned him, persecuted his wife, harassed his children and possibly killed his son. Nelson was true to his belief, “if you want to make peace with an enemy, one must work with that enemy and that enemy becomes your partner”.

Know your enemy

Nelson knew that his biggest obstacle was the Afrikaners, the white South Africans who had put apartheid in the law books.  “Maybe it is out of fear that they themselves would one day become the oppressed once again” Nelson said, but he knew if he was to make any progress in negotiations he would need to understand the world from their viewpoint.

In the 1960s he started to study and speak Afrikaans. He became fluent and all Afrikaners who met him (from prison guards to presidents) were impressed with his command of the language and the fact that he wanted to speak the language – the language of the oppressors.

In the 1970s, Tafelberg Publishers sent Nelson a small library of Afrikaans books.  He responded from Robben Island with thanks – in perfect Afrikaans. His comrades teased him, but he believed that “When an Afrikaner changes, he changes completely”.  Tactically he knew he could win them over with charm – one of his biggest assets.

Rugby was the sport of the Afrikaner, so Nelson learnt the rules and followed the game and the players.  This would always be a conversation opener, and with rugby he would get to the heart of the Afrikaner. He knew the Afrikaners felt deeply African, as the much as the black South Africans did, and he realised that Afrikaners had been victims of prejudice in the past too (from the British and English South Africans).  Nelson felt there were so many similarities between the two cultures – both with cultural inferiority but “Our differences are our strength” he said.

A good leader has “the ability to understand the context in which they are operating and act accordingly”, so by knowing, understanding and speaking their language, appreciating their music and engaging with their literature, Nelson was able to share the hopes, dreams and aspirations of the Afrikaner.

“Forget the past, and think of the present” Nelson Mandela

For someone who spent 27 years in prison, forgetting the past is impossible, but Nelson did not allow his past to dictate present and decide his future. “Blaming things on the past does not make them better”.  But Nelson felt that, “Nothing can be more valuable as being part and parcel of the history of a country.” Learning from history prevents us making the same mistakes in the future.

“Quitting is leading too” Nelson Mandela

Many felt that after his imprisonment, giving him President for Life status was appropriate, but African history shows how this has proven to be disastrous for the continent. Nelson wanted to set a precedent for those who follow him. For Nelson a leaders lead as much by what they choose to do as what they choose not to do.  Cyril Ramaphosa said that for Nelson, “His job was to set the course, not steer the ship”.

We can make the world a better place

From his humble beginnings, Nelson took remarkable and often controversial steps to eventually becoming the president of a free South Africa. There are statues of him around the world and even a Mandela Day in his honour. For Nelson, the eternal and fundamental optimist, “we pass through this world but once and opportunities you miss will never be available to you again” and “belief in the possibility of change and renewal is perhaps one of the defining characteristics of politics and of religions”. He kept his head pointed to the sun and his feet moving forward. Everyone has the capacity to transform the world.

Mandela was a diplomat and a stateman, who gave his life to service. He evolved and matured from a headstrong and emotional activist, into a balanced and disciplined politician. And that was how he saw himself – purely as a politician. “My real vocation was to be a servant of the people”.

“It would be very egotistical of me to say how I would like to be remembered. I’d leave that entirely to South Africans. I would just like a simple stone on which is written ‘Mandela’”.


Dawn A. Denton

Writer, trainer, online retailer and owner of Celebrate Southern Africa

Dawn has also written about how ‘Thunder and Lightening came to live in the sky’

1 Comment

  1. Ah, we will not see his equal again. To think that people’s fear kept this man from leading people for 27 years … and that the most volatile country in the world should undergo a relatively peaceful transition to its opposite. That for me was the miracle and Mandela was instrumental in making it happen. There are still complaints – from all sides, but no one can deny the greatness of the man in what he achieved. Thank you, Dawn.

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