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Mandela's art of 'understanding the enemy'

A senior correspondent reflects on decades of covering the savvy political operator who became an African icon.

Last updated: 06 Dec 2013 09:14
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Johannesburg, South Africa - It was a gloriously clear winter's day in Johannesburg, and my ears were still ringing with the throb of the Boeing 747 engines that had flown by a few minutes before, so low it seemed below the level of the floodlights around the Ellis Park stadium. The crowd roared as the teams ran onto the field - South Africa's Springboks taking on the All Blacks of New Zealand in the 1995 World Cup rugby final.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw walking out to meet the players the tall, lean, grey-haired figure of Nelson Mandela. Unlike the suited officials around him, the South African president was wearing casual grey trousers and a green shirt.

As he walked he donned a green cap, and there was an audible intake of breath from more than 60,000 people as they realised Mandela was wearing the Springbok cap and jersey, with the yellow number six on the back - the same as that of the team's captain Francois Pienaar.

As he shook the hands of the players, his name was shouted from one side of the stadium, and then it swelled in volume as all took it up in a powerful rhythmic beat: "Nelson, Nelson, Nelson, Nelson".

At that moment, millions watched as a country divided for decades became one. South Africans in the stadium and beyond experienced for the first time a shared sense of national pride and joy. Just a year into democracy, it was the defining moment of the new South Africa.

As a beaming Mandela handed over the World Cup to the blond Afrikaner captain Pienaar at the end of the game, his was the face of a man who knew his country had won far more than a sporting trophy.

Mandela's decision to wear the rugby jersey was generally regarded as spontaneous, the result of one of his bodyguards contacting a team representative on the morning of the game. Yet, this exultant moment was in fact the culmination of a strategic plan that had begun decades before.

Prison time

Many of Mandela's fellow prisoners during his time on Robben Island commented about his insistence on learning Afrikaans, the language of the white minority that many of the oppressed refused to speak, or even learn.

A number of the younger activists who were imprisoned on the island after the 1976 student uprising were deeply offended when they heard Mandela speaking Afrikaans to the warders.

Their generation had taken to the streets in protest against the regime's insistence that Afrikaans be taught in black schools.

Follow our coverage of Mandela's death and legacy

Saths Cooper was one of those arrested in 1976 and sent to Robben Island, where he was placed in the same cellblock as Mandela. He was released in 1982 with a BA degree that he had earned by correspondence while in prison.

I first met him shortly after he had completed a Masters Degree in Psychology at the University of the Witwatersrand. As a founder of the Black People's Convention, Cooper was deeply opposed to what he saw as the misguided "non-racial" policies of Mandela and the African National Congress.

It was the first time I had heard firsthand a description of Mandela and his character, made all the more insightful perhaps by the fact that it came from a political opponent.

"He argued it was all a question of knowing your enemy," said Cooper. "His position was that you had to know their language, their passions, their hopes and their fears if you were ever going to defeat them."

Throughout years of debate in the cells, the two remained at odds politically, but Cooper said this never clouded their discussions.

"You could sense the resistance but he would listen anyway. He was a very good listener and would try to insinuate his viewpoint through a carefully considered question of clarification or positing another position. But he listened; he may not have liked what he was hearing, but listened nevertheless."

Another of Mandela's fellow prisoners and political opponents had a slightly different view. Neville Alexander was one of the great intellects of his generation, and was recognised as such during his 10 years on Robben Island. Alexander was asked by the ANC leadership, including Mandela, to tutor a young man already earmarked as a leader of the future, Jacob Zuma. This despite the fact he was vehemently opposed to what he saw as the "populist" polices of the organisation.

It was Alexander who dispelled any tendencies one had to worship Mandela as an untouchable icon, and his gentle reminder that it is possible to respect, and even like, someone you fundamentally disagree with is something that continues to resonate. Alexander described Mandela's intense stubbornness.

"I have always experienced this stubbornness of his more as a form of arrogance, as a form of conservatism really. He will obviously give the impression of listening very, very carefully, but every now and again you realise no, he hasn't listened, because he is still coming up with the same position as before," he said.

'Understanding the enemy'

Alexander, who died in 2012, clearly recalled too what he saw as Mandela's obsession with "understanding the enemy".

"Mandela knew and knows that certain symbols, certain traditions, cultural practices like rugby, like the Springbok as a symbol, that these things are very important, and that his whole purpose of course has been to bring together the Afrikaner and the African traditions.

And to get them somehow, not in a melting pot way necessarily, but in a salad bowl way, to get them somehow to constitute a single entity. I mean his whole nation-building strategy is based on that. What better coup than to get the ‘white' Springbok team to be accepted by the black majority as their team?"

The years of negotiation between Mandela's release from prison in 1990 and the democratic elections four years later were also years of argument within the African National Congress (ANC).

There were many opposed to Mandela's idea of "embracing" the game of rugby and the icon of the national team, the Springbok - a symbol that was associated with the apartheid past - yet he continued to remain inflexible in his position and persuaded the ANC National Executive to endorse the holding of the Rugby World Cup in South Africa in 1995.

The opposition to the "Springboks" was deeply imbedded in the majority of the population, but having made his decision, Mandela was going to stick to it. A man who left nothing to chance, he decided to single-handedly take the matter to the masses.

Months before the World Cup tournament, I went to cover an ANC political rally in the Eastern Cape, the one area in which the game of rugby had traditionally been played on a non-racial basis as a point of deep opposition to the "whites only" Springbok team.

Mandela was the main speaker, and as he walked on to the podium he was wearing for the first time the green cap of the team with the yellow springbok emblazoned on the front. There were murmurs of disbelief and even anger in the crowd.

Mandela ignored the reaction, speaking right over a number of loud jeers, and in the deafening roars of applause that greeted the end of the speech, the issue of the cap appeared to be forgotten.

Mandela subsequently argued with his advisors that this constituted a public endorsement of his position, and that was the end of the matter.

Many argued the issue of supporting the Springboks was evidence of Mandela's supreme arrogance, of the unshakeable self-belief that he was right. Others pointed to the success of the tactic as proof of the man's long-term vision - his ability to think things all the way through despite obstacles on the way.

The issue of Zulu chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi was another subject that divided the ANC in vigorous debate. To many, the man who accepted leadership of what at the time was regarded as the Bantustan of Kwazulu was at best a stooge of the apartheid government, at worst an exceedingly dangerous enemy of the ANC and its opposition to the white regime's attempt to divide the country on a tribal basis.

Mandela had met Buthelezi in the 1950s, and throughout his imprisonment kept up a cordial and respectful correspondence with the Zulu leader.

This relationship was maintained on his release from prison, despite the fact the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), established as Buthelezi's political vehicle, was opposed to the ANC.

Intense violence

In the Natal region, and in every one of the country's townships where there was a significant Zulu presence, this opposition manifested itself in intense violence.

Buthelezi felt slighted by the ANC in the negotiation process, and insisted he would boycott the country's first democratic elections.

Analysts said Nelson Mandela had a masterful understanding of the "balance of forces" in political campaigns  [AFP]

Through late 1993 and early 1994 I was one of the many journalists who spent much of the time in the regional capital of Durban, camped out in the foyer of a beachfront hotel watching as numerous ANC delegations came and went - none managing to persuade Buthelezi to agree to a truce.

Then Mandela, who for months had been urging the organisation to let him do the talking, finally got his way.

He arrived at the hotel and immediately insisted that he and Buthelezi talk alone - no advisers, and definitely no media.

At a subsequent news conference, Mandela was effusive in his praise of the Inkatha leader. Buthelezi sat quietly and said little.

On the eve of the 1994 elections, Buthelezi agreed to take part in the vote, the violence suddenly stopped, and the biggest single threat to the process had been nullified.

Mandela was not finished in his long-term strategy. Against the will of many in the ANC executive, he insisted Buthelezi be a minister in the democratic government, and for the first eight years of the country's democracy, a man who many regarded as the ANC's most dangerous opponent served as Minister of Home Affairs.

Shortly before the 1999 elections, there was once again an eruption of tribal killings. Buthelezi's critics insisted he was turning the violence on and off like a tap to increase his political influence.

Mandela vigorously opposed Buthelezi's dismissal from the government, and when both he and his deputy president Thabo Mbeki were to be out of the country at the same time, Mandela insisted that Buthelezi be acting head of state.

For a few weeks, the man who some in the ANC had wanted killed, the man who many believed posed the greatest threat to the new democracy, became acting president.

The violence stopped, and once again Mandela's long-term strategy had paid off. Once again his insistence to ignore those who disagreed with him had proved to be the right choice.

Balance of forces

Anybody who interviewed Mandela knew one subject would not be discussed - religion. It was something Mandela regarded as intensely personal and the business of no one but himself.

I found another red line, though, on the number of occasions I spoke to him; every time I brought up the question of long-term strategic thinking Mandela would change the subject in the most charming of ways. He would joke, smile, and bring up another point he wanted to make. The message was clear; his actions were all about what he considered the right thing to do at any given time.

The closest he came to explaining the thought that went into what many times appeared to be spontaneous action was when he spoke about someone else.

In 1995 at the funeral of his long-time friend and leader of the South African Communist Party, Joe Slovo, Mandela gave the first of many speeches over the coffins of old friends in the years to come.

"The most central factor in [Slovo's] approach to struggle on any front was the understanding of the political situation, the balance of forces, and thus the approaches necessary to advance that struggle.

"Thus he was able to appreciate changes in the objective conditions and initiate discussions on changes to the tactics to be applied," said Mandela, who could have been describing himself.

Through it all, though, what was never measured publically was the personal cost of living a present largely defined by a vision of the future. Graca Machel, who became Mandela's third wife, pointed out what few realised in an interview on the occasion of her husband's 90th birthday.

"Mandela was a lonely man when I met him," she said. "He had the world in his hands. But at the end of the day, after the public meetings, he would go home and he would be alone."

No glimmer of this loneliness ever showed in Mandela's public face, and once again his prison colleague Neville Alexander provided a unique insight. 

"He's a really good actor, and it's the kind of case where art imitates life. And really, genuinely, life imitates art - the other way round," Alexander said.

"He thinks things through very carefully, and then the force and the power of his conviction makes him spontaneous. He is genuine, but it's because it's been thought through very, very carefully. Of course, like every other human being, he has the odd lapse, and then everybody says 'well, even the god has feet of clay.'"

'You are our life'

In May 2003, Mandela's oldest and dearest friend and advisor Walter Sisulu died. The two men had been law partners, fellow prisoners for decades, and in the years since Mandela's release, Sisulu had always been the voice of reason and sometimes comfort in his ear.

A close political colleague of Mandela once said to me, "Walter's like that guy who stood behind a Roman general on the chariot during a Triumph, whispering in his ear ‘remember you are only human'".

In his speech at yet another funeral of another colleague he outlived, Mandela described the kind of man Sisulu had been and - perhaps at the same time - revealed the type of person he himself had always tried to be.

"He knew and taught us that wisdom comes from sharing insights and listening to and learning from each other. He was always the unifier, never a divider.

Where others of us would speak a hasty word or act in anger, he was the patient one, seeking to heal and bring together," Mandela said.

After the speech, he sat down among all ANC leaders gathered on stage. His face looked as though it was carved out of granite. I seldom saw a man look so sad, so alone.

Then a group of women in brightly coloured dresses gathered at the side of the stage singing a song of praise: "Mandela, Mandela. You are our life".

Mandela looked up, his face suddenly transformed into that beaming signature smile. He got unsteadily to his feet and walked across to where the singers had gathered, extended his arms, and began to dance.

In an instant he had put away his grief, buried it for a short time in some private place, and became the public leader who emanated nothing but hope. A man the people wanted and needed him to be.

It was spontaneous, it was genuine, and as with so much in Nelson Mandela's life, it was the right thing to do.

Mike Hanna is an Al Jazeera news presenter and correspondent. He grew up in South Africa and as a journalist covered the long struggle against apartheid and the negotiations that led to the emergence of a new, non-racial, democratic government headed by Nelson Mandela. He continues to report on events in South Africa for Al Jazeera English. He is indebted to PBS for some of the direct public quotes by Neville Alexander.

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