Sunday 8 December 2013

Nelson Mandela 1918 - 2013: A highly skilled political operator

When I discovered on Thursday night that Nelson Mandela had died, I was saddened but not surprised. It was a day I'd been expecting for the last 3 months.

Since Thursday I've been thinking about what I wanted say about Mandela. What could I say that hasn't already been said?

I decided to look back at one of my old blog posts. It was written in 2010 to mark the 20th Anniversary of his release from prison.

Reading the post this weekend, it reminded me that Nelson Mandela has been a major political figure since my childhood. Growing up in the 1980s, I was always aware of the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. The protests and violence in the country were a common feature of watching the news when I was growing up.

As a black child it made me aware of real racism and discrimination in its most extreme form. I was watching millions of people with the same skin colour as me being oppressed and denied basic political freedoms.

The imprisonment of Mandela seemed to represent the worst in the oppressive apartheid regime. Here was the leader of the black opposition locked up for over 20 years.

I think because the only images of Mandela you saw were old tv interviews from the 1960s, it seemed to elevate his status in the struggle for black freedom in South Africa.

By the time of his release in 1990 the event was arguably one the biggest news stories of my life, it was up there with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Here was a man I heard so much about finally being set free.

Since his release, Mandela has become probably the most revered, respected and loved political leader in the world. He's like a living saint for modern times.

Reading and listening to various reports on his life and career, I've been thinking that perhaps we should appreciate more what an incredibly skillful and astute political operator Mandela was.

This gets overlooked at times as we want to focus on his compassion, his humility and his ability to forgive. Obviously these are important qualities and go along way to making Mandela the person he was - but to achieve what he did required great political skill.

South Africa could easily have become a bloodbath. Rightwing Afrikaners were ready to take up arms against black majority rule. Elements of the black population were not surprisingly seeking vengeance against whites.

Western governments and businesses with interests in South Africa feared the worst, but Mandela through his political abilities prevented the nightmare scenario of civil war that so many feared.

I've heard many comments about how Mandela showed forgiveness against his former political enemies, but what strikes me is how he won them over.

He didn't hate his oppressors he learnt to understand them, whether it was his Afrikaner prison guards on Robben island or members of the ruling National Party Government and security forces in the 1980s.

Earlier today I was listening to Radio 5 and they were looking at Mandela's impact on sport in South Africa. We all know the story of how he decided to wear the green springbok jersey at the 1995 Rugby World Cup final between South Africa and New Zealand.

The Springboks were despised by the non white population and the jersey represented white domination in South Africa. What Mandela understood was the symbolic message wearing that jersey would mean firstly to white Afrikaners but to non whites as well.

For people who think sport and politics can't or shouldn't mix, this moment shows exactly why the two are always linked. A simple act won over the fears and worries of his former enemies.

It's this kind of subtle political intelligence that allowed Mandela to achieve the peaceful transition from apartheid to democracy in South Africa.

In our cynical times we want and need figures we can look up to and truly believe in. I don't think there's been a political figure in my lifetime who's achieved this in the way Mandela has.

As much as we want to remember his inherent goodness and courage, lets not overlook what skillful and intelligent political leader he was. Without that skill and intelligence South Africa would be a very different place today.

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