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Nelson Mandela used a combination of strength, humility and decisive action to lead the country out of a history of oppression into a possible future where all people are united, writes Trevor Manuel.
I have enjoyed the rare, disl.tinct and life-changing experience of working close to Nelson Mandela. I was able to have first-hand glimpses of events around his release from prison.
First, to accompany him on his first trip abroad that included his formal inclusion in the post-Kabwe ANC National Executive Committee (NEC) and his reconnection with OR Tambo; then to serve on the NEC after he was elected as ANC president in 1991; and later to serve in his cabinet for the five years of his tenure as our head of state.
I am one of those who had been plucked from obscurity by Madiba, and assigned roles – as head of the ANC Department of Economic Planning initially, then as Minister of Trade and Industry, and thereafter as Minister of Finance. I am proof that he wanted to affirm people who would be otherwise overlooked in society.
He trusted me with huge responsibilities and in one of our last conversations he said to me: “I was glad that we proved the naysayers wrong. You also opened the door for other young blacks to be trusted in positions of responsibility.”
I share this not out of egotism, but because it demonstrates the sense of strategy that Madiba so frequently displayed.
As Madiba seemed to fade, first from private view, and later even from private conversation, he appeared to afford all around him the same generosity allowing them to take their leave of him graciously. Yet, his passing makes it all too final and still leaves a void.
The timing of his passing on December 5 may even be described as his final political act because he will be interred on the eve of our Day of Reconciliation, which itself will be the anniversary of his establishing uMkhonto we Sizwe, 53 years earlier.
This year, we can extend the day and spirit of reconciliation because of his passing. Madiba was always so thoughtful about consequences.
What do we make of a leadership style that was so consistent, empowering, embracing and gracious. That was the established and public view by analysts of Madiba’s style. In truth, it was the same view enjoyed at close quarters.
Yet if that were all you observed, in the huddle, as a boxer may describe it, you would have missed the privilege of learning from a master strategist, who, almost always paid more attention to how a series would close out than he did to the actual move.
Let me share some observations to illustrate the point:
Pause and reflect on the power of his statement from the dock. Faced with the risk of execution for treason, he nevertheless took the risk of making a speech that shook the world and explained to all why he was in the dock.
How many others could say in the dock, “These are ideals I hope to live for, but if need be, am prepared to die for.” Did the judge have a choice? Think also about the millions across the world who were inspired by the clarity of his commitment.
Do consider how he engaged the apartheid regime of PW Botha and FW de Klerk in the talks about talks, while refusing to negotiate because “prisoners cannot negotiate with their jailers”.
We know that some of his fellow Rivonia trialists, and many militants outside the prison were implacably opposed to the very thought of talks. He persisted because he had considered the consequences.
Think about two of the inclusions he insisted on having in his speech at the Grand Parade on the day of his release, February 11, 1990. He said, “I stand here not as a messiah, but as your humble servant” and “President FW de Klerk is a man of integrity.”
The first placed him in a direct relationship with the people, and the second that he insisted on, in the face of resistance from people including me, was a master stroke. Fast forward your mind to the events at Codesa 1, almost two years later when Madiba said to FW de Klerk, “I used to describe you as a man of integrity, but now I have my doubts”, that blew every commentator completely away.
Please recall his role in that early process of the Groote Schuur and Pretoria talks. The latter produced a huge challenge because it resulted in the ending of the armed struggle. There were many unhappy ANC cadres and many comrades were still in prison, and Operation Vula was still in place. There was still so much hurt.
Yet, Madiba argued that if it did not happen then, the ANC would not extract much from the “other side” and would lose the leadership initiative, and to good effect.
Explore Madiba’s actions in the wake of the Boipatong massacre, when talks had already broken down. It was he who insisted on the right to address the UN Security Council to demand “blue beret” peacekeepers to shift the authority away from the “guns of the oppressors”.
Remember that it was Nelson Mandela who turned the pain of Chris Hani’s assassination into a triumph for the people when he insisted on addressing the nation on public television. Before then, only the state president had this privilege. President de Klerk had no option but to permit it, and in the course of that, Madiba became the de facto head of state in April 1993, more than a year before the elections were actually held.
Power shifted irrevocably from the ‘”sitting president” to Madiba, in an instant.
The IFP refused to participate in negotiations, insisting instead on “international mediation”. The process moved on without them and the IFP did not appear on the ballot paper.
When they relented on the eve of the elections, and agreed to participate, Madiba issued a firm request that the party name be affixed to the ballot paper, because securing peace especially in KwaZulu-Natal was always going to produce a victory far greater than the “joy” of their exclusion.
Do try and look up the composition of his cabinet. Not only was it that of a government of national unity, but the ANC contingent was representative. It was as though Madiba would go the extra mile to affirm people drawn from communities that may otherwise have been excluded.
Old-fashioned as he was about some issues, his commitment to non-racialism and non-sexism was never in doubt.
Remember also that his visit to the Springbok Rugby training camp and Ellis Park on the day of the World Cup final were hardly inspired by his deep love of rugby. As with his visit to Orania to visit Mrs Betsie Verwoerd, the motive was as transparent as it was ulterior.
Nelson Mandela used the office of the president to win over people who were genuinely disaffected by democracy.
The eight examples I share tell the story of a person who exercises control by considering the consequences of his words and actions. History is a great judge of the quality of the foresight that he demonstrated each time.
I do not recall him having regrets about what he said, nor do I ever recall him having to retract commitments made.
Madiba’s actions showed that he gave much thought to how to “keep his powder dry” and to use the available powder wisely and to best effect.
May we have the courage to walk in his footsteps.
* Trevor Manuel is National Planning Minister.