Mandela: the 20th century’s greatest leader?

A panel of experts assess Nelson Mandela’s life and legacy and discuss whether he can be considered the 20th century’s greatest leader.

This article was first published in the January 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine

To what extent did Mandela’s aristocratic upbringing help prepare him for a future leadership role?

David Killingray: Mandela was born in the rural eastern Cape, a Xhosa speaker (as were his later political colleagues Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu) and a member of the Tembu ‘royal’ elite. This privileged economic background helped smooth his way to primary and secondary schools and then on to Fort Hare University. Early on Mandela learned English. Chiefly status (which meant more in the 1920s–40s) seems to have given Mandela confidence, although his status was not always acknowledged in urban areas.

Keith Shear: Rather more may have been made of this point than it can bear, but if it had any relevance then it was in contributing to an ability to interact confidently and composedly with people of every station in life. More relevant, perhaps, was that this upbringing took place in an African ‘reserve’, where Mandela was not constantly confronted with the awful spectacle of seeing his elders behaving submissively towards whites.

 

What incidents in Mandela’s life were most important in propelling him towards activism?

Matthew Graham: Mandela has argued that there was no single revelatory moment that pushed him towards a life of struggle; rather it was the culmination of the daily injustices and brutality of apartheid. Yet, there were clearly important stages towards a life of activism, particularly during the early 1940s: Mandela’s close friendships with Walter Sisulu, Anton Lembede and AP Mda were crucial influences, which drew him into increasing contact with the ANC. Furthermore, while studying for a law degree at Wits University, Mandela met many ‘radical’ anti-apartheid activists such as Joe Slovo and Ruth First, who introduced him to a world of non-racial political activism.

Saul Dubow: As a youth and as a student, Mandela was not especially radical. His political trajectory was relatively gradual and he emerged as a leader only in his mid-30s. It was the invigorating cosmopolitan environment of wartime and postwar Johannesburg, the daily realities of oppression, and the need to resist the imposition of apartheid, that increasingly drew Mandela into active politics.

 

What enabled him to stand out as a leader among his fellow ANC activists?

KS: Mandela had the style, stature and bearing that appealed to the popular constituency the ANC sought to mobilise from the late 1940s. As importantly, he possessed the self-discipline and organising skills that ensured his appointment to lead efforts at popular mobilisation such as the 1952 Defiance Campaign, which directly and visibly challenged apartheid laws.

Finally, his legal training, which was rare among black South Africans of the era, gave him a strategic knowledge of where the ANC might confront the white authorities and just how far it could go in doing so.

MG: It must be remembered that the organisation had a number of talented leaders working together as a collective. However, Mandela clearly stood out, due to his commanding and authoritative presence.

Through strength of conviction and force of personality, he was able to influence and coalesce activists behind his ideas. Unlike some of his peers, he had a pragmatic and far-sighted approach to the struggle, beyond narrow nationalistic confines. What truly set him aside was his willingness to take bold, decisive and often radical steps, such as his role in the Youth League and the decision to embark on the armed struggle.

 

During the ANC’s armed struggle, was it appropriate to describe Mandela as a terrorist, as some did?

MG: Did Mandela advocate the overthrow of the government by violence? Yes. Strictly speaking, under the guise of international law, Mandela could certainly be described as a terrorist. However, in 1966 the UN General Assembly decreed apartheid a ‘crime against humanity’, perhaps mitigating the argument against terrorism. I wouldn’t describe Mandela as a terrorist – he regarded himself as a freedom fighter. 

DK: Under the apartheid regime non-Europeans lost their citizenship, and were denied most human rights. South Africa had become “a vicious despotism,” said Mandela in his defiant speech of June 1964. Passive resistance availed little. An armed state that used violence against its own people invited violent response.

The ANC was reluctant to use violence, the initial targets being infrastructural property, not people. The South African state terrorised its opponents irrespective of their colour. ‘Terrorism’ was a convenient Cold War label directed at the ANC by the South African regime and its right-wing allies abroad.

SD: No. As far as we know, he never fired a shot in combat or primed a device. Like most of his compatriots in the early Umkhonto we Sizwe [the armed wing of the ANC], he was an amateur. For Mandela, armed resistance was only ever an adjunct to political struggle, with the possible exception of his period as leader of the underground, when he helped to formulate the fanciful and ill-fated revolutionary strategy, Operation Mayibuye, for which he was found guilty of high treason. The big unresolved historical question is whether his championship of the armed struggle hastened or delayed a political solution in South Africa.

 

How did his long imprisonment shape Mandela?

KS: It reinforced an already strong sense of determination, discipline and duty with qualities of resilience, patience and pragmatism. It enhanced his negotiating skills, both with his captors and with his fellow political prisoners, not all of whom were from the ANC. And combined with the legendary status that the campaign for his release endowed him with, it gave him the moral authority to adopt unpopular positions among his comrades and take difficult decisions in dealing with his opponents following his release.

 

Why do you think he became such a potent symbol of resistance around the world, during his time in prison?

SD: Mandela’s standing was enhanced by his absence. He was spared mistakes and absolved of blame for the many failures of the ANC in exile.

By the early 1970s, Mandela was largely forgotten outside South Africa and only dimly remembered inside. The ANC and the Communist Party deliberately projected him as a leader of the struggle, but not always as the leader. In the aftermath of the Soweto uprising of 1976, Steve Biko, leader of the Black Consciousness Movement, was for many people the foremost symbol of resistance. Partly in reaction, the international Anti-Apartheid Movement, in consultation with the ANC, began to promote Mandela as the personification of the struggle. This campaign turned him into a political celebrity for a world hungry for a redemptive hero. Only after 1980 did Mandela become internationally accepted as a potential leader-in-waiting.

MG: One of the greatest successes of the ANC’s struggle, with the assistance of the anti-apartheid movement, was the global PR campaign that turned Mandela into this symbol of resistance. He was a figure with an almost impeccable background – apartheid was a rare, cut and dried moral cause, and being a key imprisoned leader made Mandela a natural focal point.

 

Why did apartheid South Africa feel able to deal with Mandela to a greater extent than some other black leaders?

KS: In part it was because the domestic and global anti-apartheid movements had created in Mandela a figure with the stature to deliver on commitments that he made in the name of the ANC. The regime may have begun with the hope of separating him from his movement, but in the end they gained by Mandela’s determination to seek a proper mandate from the ANC, and his personal qualities undoubtedly assisted in making the ANC’s negotiating positions more palatable to white South Africans and their leaders.

SD: For a long time, apartheid South Africa did everything possible to avoid dealing with Mandela. When, eventually, more farsighted members of the government realised that the ANC could not be isolated forever, efforts were made to deal with Mandela and to split him from the ANC mainstream. FW de Klerk [president from 1989–94] was the first apartheid leader who realised that nothing short of Mandela’s unconditional release was politically practicable. He also hoped to wrong-foot the ANC.

 

Why was Mandela so willing to work with his former oppressors?

MG: Mandela understood that hatred only fuels further hatred, resulting in violence and the possible disintegration of the country. Importantly, the white population controlled the levers of the economy and, already fearful of the ‘communist’ ANC, would have needed little excuse to emigrate en masse.

Having witnessed the decolonisation process across Africa, Mandela appreciated the need to appease the white minority and keep them onboard to ensure a smooth transition to democracy.

Supporters gather outside Cape Town’s Tygerberg Hospital in 1987 to wish Nelson Mandela – then still a political prisoner – well as he fought tuberculosis. (© Gallo Images)

DK: This has two sides to it: Mandela’s willingness and also the regime’s willingness. A good deal of talking had gone on before he emerged from prison. The elections of 1987 strengthened the right wing. However, defeat in Angola, retreat from Namibia, increased violence within South Africa, international condemnation, and particularly US refusal to invest in South Africa are all significant.

The Christian influence among black and white South Africans should not be ignored. And was Mandela, aged 71, conscious of his iconic position in the world? The reconciler sounds so much better than the wrecker.

 

Without Mandela, would South Africa have succumbed to civil war?

SD: South Africa was in a virtual state of civil war when Mandela was released in 1990. The ANC and its internal wing, the UDF, were engaged in continuous acts of political violence with Inkatha, the Zulu nationalist political movement. Elements on the far right, including in the military, were stoking the situation and positioning to stage a coup.

The killing by right-wing militants of legendary ANC leader Chris Hani in 1993 brought the country to the brink; Mandela’s personal intervention helped calm the situation at a critical juncture. But Mandela was not alone. The negotiating skills of Cyril Ramaphosa for the ANC and Roelf Meyer for the government helped to keep the political process alive. The moral authority of Desmond Tutu was highly significant. De Klerk’s ability to neutralise the state’s securocrats was key.

MG: Mandela and De Klerk realised that compromises had to be reached to avert continued conflict. This was a radical change of mindset for both sides, which prevented the full blown escalation of hostilities. Mandela’s appeal to ANC supporters to put down their weapons in Natal, the agreement to halt the armed struggle, and his call for calm after Hani’s assassination all proved important.

 

How successful was Mandela as a president of South Africa?

DK: The ANC won the 1994 election, and Mandela was president for a single term, perhaps a lesson to other African rulers. His great success is surely as a reconciler.

Mandela led the ANC to victory in South Africa’s first multi-racial elections in 1994. (© Corbis)

South Africa’s acute socioeconomic problems, the legacy of two centuries of wrong, could not be resolved in the short term. Black aspirations were raised, but barely met. Nevertheless, an independent ‘free’ South Africa gave a new sense of pride and accomplishment to many people who 10 years before had not been ‘citizens’.

SD: Mixed. Mandela left much of the day-to-day running of government to his deputy, Thabo Mbeki. He was an effective delegator and concentrated instead on keeping alive the idea of the `miracle’ of South Africa’s political transition, by promoting reconciliation at home and building political support abroad. Under his leadership the ANC moved from programmatic socialism to a ramshackle form of corporatist social democracy. Mandela did little to promote economic redistribution or rein in big business. He was more effective as an international statesman than as a leader of transformation.

 

What do you see as his legacy today?

KS: For countless people worldwide, Mandela symbolises the virtues of an indefatigable struggle against the evils of racism and oppression. Rising above discords, bigotries and inequalities – those of his own country and of others – he became a unifying figure inspiring and eliciting our common humanity.

MG: It has to be his unfaltering commitment to forgiveness and reconciliation. South Africa in the early 1990s was close to breaking point, yet Mandela courageously rejected any notion of revenge or retribution, by offering an olive branch of clemency in order to prevent the country descending into anarchy. 

Mandela didn’t just speak of reconciliation, he acted upon it, serving as a shining example for others. The reconciliation and forgiveness he promoted (while not always popular) kept South Africa together, and allowed for democracy to be realised.

 

Could Mandela be described as the greatest leader of the 20th century?

MG: Mandela is one of the greatest leaders of the 20th century. He sacrificed his own life in selfless service against the brutality of apartheid, fighting for justice, democracy and freedom for all. By becoming the living embodiment of reconciliation he began healing the wounds of a deeply divided society. However, there is a danger of rewriting history and creating a myth around Mandela. While he was undoubtedly a great leader, he was no ‘saint’ and his flaws must be recognised. 

DK: Mandela was undoubtedly a remarkable man – particularly in later life. Now that he has died, expect the counter-saint stories of the ANC in exile and opposition, the ‘real’ Mandela. This invariably follows when there is no longer any urgency to praise famous men.

SD: In an age of postmodern cynicism Mandela reminded the world of the untainted moral vision and hopes of the early post-colonial era. He did not himself bring freedom to South Africa, but he did more than anyone else to bear the country over the threshold. Despite his long political life, Mandela’s active political career as a stand-out leader was remarkably short. He was the political hedgehog who did one very great thing rather than the political fox who sets his mind on a great number of things.

KS: South Africa is a relatively small country in the scheme of things, so it is unlikely that any leader it produced could measure up to, for example, Franklin Roosevelt. For a time, however, South Africa uniquely embodied the evils of racism in a world that officially at least no longer tolerated racism, and Mandela’s example in drawing attention to these evils, and then destroying the order that symbolised them, will always be cited admiringly.  

 

The panel

David Killingray is emeritus professor of modern history at Goldsmiths, London and an honorary professor at Stellenbosch University, South Africa. Among his recent publications is an article on early members of the African National Congress, in the South African Historical Journal, a ‘special issue’ on the ANC, 2012

Saul Dubow is professor of African history at QueenMary, University of London. His book Apartheid, 1948–1994 will be published by Oxford University Press later this year

Keith Shear is senior lecturer in African studies at the University of Birmingham, specialising in postwar South Africa

Matthew Graham is a lecturer in history and politics at the University of Dundee, specialising in sub-Saharan Africa. His book The Crisis of South African Foreign Policy and the ANC will be published by IB Tauris later this year

 

Professor Saul Dubow and Dr Aron Mazel discuss Nelson Mandela’s legacy on our podcast. Click here to listen.

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