One autumn evening, Nelson Mandela answered a knock at his front door and found himself facing his most dangerous enemy.
The man’s name was General Constand Viljoen, and he was dubbed the “ultimate enforcer” of apartheid, the brutal system where Whites had ruled over Blacks in South Africa for much of the 20th century. Viljoen was the former chief of the South African Defense Force, which had crushed dissent in Black townships and, some say, assassinated Black activists. He thought Mandela was a terrorist who deserved execution.
“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.”
It was October 1993, and both men were trying to stop a looming civil war. Many White South Africans were terrified of losing political power in an impending national election. Political factions murdered one another in the streets. And an alliance of White supremacist groups had asked Viljoen to lead an armed insurrection against the government. Viljoen didn’t trust Mandela but accepted his invitation as a last resort to avert war.
But then something happened to Viljoen after he talked over tea with Mandela. By the end of the evening, Viljoen had not only accepted Mandela’s request to call off the insurrection; he persuaded other White South Africans to participate in the upcoming election. And when Mandela was inaugurated as South Africa’s President a year later following the nation’s first fully Democratic elections, Viljoen stood in the middle of the new parliament, saluted him, and would later call him “the greatest of men.”
How did Mandela change the mind of a man once described as the “ultimate racist?” The answer to that question holds some critical lessons for the treacherous political environment in the US today.
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.
“He took a political divide and racial divisions that go way beyond what you’re living in the US right now, and he managed to build a bridge,” says John Carlin, author of three books on Mandela, and a journalist who befriended Mandela .
“For those people in America who would like to explore how to build bridges across chasms that get ever wider in America, he’s worthy of study,” says Carlin, author of “Knowing Mandela,” and “Invictus,” which was made into a Hollywood movie.
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 mob of armed White citizens stormed the most important political venue in the country as lawmakers fled for safety in an attempt to derail the upcoming elections. White citizens stockpiled guns. Unscrupulous political leaders egged on street violence to raise their profiles and build followers. It looked in some ways like a sneak preview of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the US Capitol.
A country built on White supremacy was trying to become a multiracial democracy, and many observers didn’t think they would make it.
At the center of much of the violence was fear of what the Afrikaners – South Africa’s dominant White ethnic group – called the “Black danger,” or “Swart Gevaar.” Apartheid denied 85% of the population, those born with dark skin, any political power. Blacks couldn’t vote, compete with Whites in the workplace; couldn’t use the same public toilets, buses, beaches, and many lived in squalor.
“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.”
Mandela had to sell democracy to a people that had richly benefitted from its absence. That sale became harder on April 10, 1993, when a White supremacist assassinated Chris Hani, a beloved Black South African leader. Hani, widely seen as Mandela’s heir apparent, was a surrogate son to Mandela.
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.
“A White woman, of Afrikaner origin, risked her life so that we may know and bring to justice this assassin,” Mandela said.
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.
“What I know is that if he hadn’t been around, the country would, in fact, have torn itself apart,” Archbishop Desmond Tutu said about Mandela’s conduct after Hani’s assassination during a PBS interview.
It’s become customary for people to demonize political opponents in this country. Videos go viral on social media that show commentators “destroying” their political opponents. Surveys reveal that while Americans are more open to interracial marriage and marriage equality, more now also oppose “interpolitical” unions, or marriages to someone of another political party.
But Mandela turned empathy into a political weapon. He used it not only to diffuse a national crisis but to survive prison. Mandela developed such a close relationship with Christo Brand, his White jailer, that Brand once snuck his infant son into prison just so Mandela could hold his son in his arms.
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.
“Prison steeled him, but it broke many others,” Richard Stengel, the author of “Mandela’s Way: Fifteen Lessons on Life, Love, and Courage,” wrote. “Understanding that made him more empathetic, not less. He never lorded it over those who could not take it. He never blamed anyone for giving in. Over the years, he developed a radar and a deep sympathy for human frailty.”
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.
Leaders in the African National Congress, the party Mandela led, voted to abolish the anthem. It was seen as a racist relic because it brazenly celebrated the White conquest and subjugation of Black people. They voted to replace it with Nkosi Sikelel iAfrika, a stately, soulful ballad favored by Black South Africans.
When Mandela heard about the decision, he was livid.
“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.”
Mandela proposed instead that South Africa should have two national anthems. The White and Black South Africans anthems would both be sung one after one another at official ceremonies and other public events. His proposal was passed unanimously by the chastened ANC leadership.
The anthem was a difficult choice, but it helped, says the Rev. Nontombi Naomi Tutu, a human rights activist, speaker and the daughter of Bishop Demond Tutu, the South African Nobel Peace Prize laureate.
“I still struggle with it,” says Tutu, who is also the associate rector at an Episcopal church in Beverly Hills, California. “When I get to the part of the Die Stem [the White national anthem], I still have to take a deep breath before I start singing, but I recognize that this was an attempt to say this is all part of our country’s story.”
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.”
That approach is how he disarmed Viljoen, the South African general who visited his home, Carlin the author says. Viljoen was considered a racist and a criminal by many Black South Africans. Carlin called him the “ultimate enforcer” of apartheid because the system was built on the brute force of the South African military. Viljoen was Mandela’s most dangerous adversary because he could have mobilzied a force of about 30,000 White South African soldiers who were ready to wage war for a White homeland.
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.
Mandea refused. He composed a response to their offer that was read by one of his daughters at a packed rally in a stadium in Soweto, South Africa.
“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.”
Viljoen’s paid another public tribute when Mandela voluntarily relinquished power after serving one term as South Africa’s first democratically elected President. He gave a speech praising Mandela in Parliament. This time he spoke in Mandela’s native language, Xhosa.
“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.”
Mandela died in 2013 at the age of 95. What he and countless other South Africans did seems like a miracle today. Their country is still afflicted by many socioeconomic divisions that linger from apartheid. But few are talking anymore about armed insurrections and a country splitting apart.
But they are invoking those scenarios in the US today. Many commentators says the county is in the middle a political and cultural civil war. The FBI director recently said White supremacy represents the nation’s biggest terrorist threat. The future looks scary, as it once did in South Africa.
We need Mandela’s example more than ever.