South Africa


Nelson Mandela’s leadership: his ‘obstinacy and stubbornness’ (Part 2)

Nelson Mandela’s leadership: his ‘obstinacy and stubbornness’ (Part 2)

An unusual, apparently contradictory set of personality traits combined to make Nelson Mandela the leader that he became. One of these was notorious stubbornness, which nevertheless combined with a willingness to change, where change became necessary. Meaning not only unwillingness to change, stubbornness can also suggest steadfastness. Obstinacy, in this sense, was also why his commitment to freedom never wavered.

This article first appeared on Creamer Media’s website:

Nelson Mandela was notoriously stubborn or obstinate, both words that are generally used to connote negative qualities. But the dictionaries suggest that the word may indicate not only “pig-headedness” or “mulishness” or unwillingness to be open to reasoning and persuasion but also steadfastness, holding to a course of action as a matter of principle.

In that sense the same words “stubborn” or “obstinate” may point to both the strengths and weaknesses of Mandela. (This article is part of a series on Mandela’s leadership. Previous contributions this year, are to be found here and here.)

At the same time Mandela’s stubbornness coexisted with flexibility and willingness to change, once change became necessary or he became convinced in his own mind or through persuasion that it was necessary to change or through change being thrust upon him, by conditions imposed on him, like imprisonment or policies of the ANC, with which he had to abide.

This change is seen in Mandela’s evolution from aggressively advancing a narrow version of Africanism towards becoming a proponent of the non-racial and multi-racial vision of the Freedom Charter. It happened when Mandela, who placed a lot of weight on being a trained lawyer, answered the ANC call to break specific laws as Volunteer in Chief in the Defiance Campaign of 1952 and then almost permanently leading a double life, part of it underground, partly as an apparently law-abiding member of society. Then ultimately, having to go underground completely, leading the life of “an outlaw”, not seeing his family, or being able to bear himself as a conventional lawyer.

In becoming the first Commander of MK, he had to channel some of the skills and discipline that can be found in the boxing that he loved (a sport that is said to require a “monastic type discipline”) into military preparation. In prison, he faced a range of other challenges. Before prison, Mandela was sometimes impetuous and was rebuked by the leadership. Prison, he says, “matured” him. He read a lot and thought a lot and listened a lot to the ideas and problems of other people.

The sometimes-impetuous Mandela was content to bide his time, waiting and observing and trying to work out what was the best way forward. This willingness to wait was manifested in the way he played chess when he would sometimes drive his opponents into fury- leading them to make a premature move, which would lose them the match- while he spent hours or days making a single move.

In prison one of the most significant transformations occurred when Mandela, who entered as a “man of war” initiated talks (at the same time as the leadership in exile, without his knowledge, was also sending out feelers to the regime). Mandela saw the possibility of breaking the logjam and securing peace and freedom. The problem was that he had no mandate to initiate such talks, and indeed, he admitted, wanted to present the organisation with a fait accompli. Was this a serious breach of collective leadership?

How do we assess this? Was this the type of individualism that must be condemned, insofar as it did not flow from an organisational decision? Or was this a way in which a leader needs to act when seeing an opening that needed to be exploited?

Insofar as Mandela acted alone, he was also not alone in the sense that, when they learnt what he had done, none of his closest comrades doubted what motivated him or that he acted from a strategic sense of what needed to be done at that particular moment. They also realised that the conditions under which he acted had required him to act on his own. Otherwise it would not have succeeded.

What is clear is that as soon as Mandela had the opportunity to communicate with the leadership he did so and they agreed on a course of action, part of which had been facilitated by his own, unmandated course of action. From then on, Mandela took a number of steps, in and out of prison in order to ensure that the peace did work, that there was a sustainable peace, or as sustainable as could be, while he was leader.

To understand Mandela acting on his own we need to ask how leadership relates to democracy and to collective decisions and mandates. What happens where there is no mandate to do something but an opportunity arises to act in a manner that can change the entire balance of forces or conditions of struggle against apartheid?

Being a leader is not simply carrying out decisions of an organisation, acting in terms of a mandate and being accountable. It is also being able to interpret the signs, in order to move beyond where one is in order to advance the goals of freedom, to go into terrain that has not yet been seen or envisaged by the members and the leadership collective.

Being able to lead beyond where one is may mean changing the conditions under which the struggle is waged, and it may also mean that the leader as an individual has to do more than act out what the organisation has instructed/mandated. The very stubborn commitment to achieving freedom – as in steadfastness rather than unwillingness to change, sometimes led Mandela to act without consent of the leadership collective. But considered retrospectively he had nothing to gain through taking these initiatives – as a person or as a leader.

He may have attempted to present the leadership with a self-initiated fait accompli. But that was not done in order to earn fame or fortune. It was very risky and controversial and in fact earned and continues to evoke controversy and criticism of his role. At the same time, he was trusted by his closest comrades who knew what motivated him and respected his judgement.

What Mandela’s concept of leadership reveals is that while he was at times stubborn and needed to be persuaded to follow or cease a course of action, he was equally a leader who continually looked for ways of breaking logjams and changing the conditions of struggle in ways that would be advantageous to those struggling for freedom. But the apartheid regime, Walter Sisulu suggests, may have under-estimated his stubbornness and also misread his willingness to talk.

The positive side of his stubbornness is illustrated by Sisulu, in relation to prison and in relation to negotiations. Sisulu recalls how when warders on Robben Island shouted at them to hurry: “Now Nelson is a very stubborn chap. He responded to this by walking very, very slowly and of course we all walked slowly too. The warders had to beg him to co-operate and walk faster.” After that, the segregation prisoners walked to the lime quarry at their own pace.

On negotiations, Sisulu remarked: “When (the government) saw a reasonable tone, they misjudged the person. It’s easy to underestimate Madiba when he’s nice – without knowing his stubbornness in approach… They look at the softness of the soft line: he is not aggressive, he is not wild. Then the possibilities are imagined to be there: to get Mandela. The National Party were prepared to discuss because (they thought) the leadership would come from them, not from the ANC.”

The same stubbornness that made Mandela stick to a sense of dignity and through his actions, empower other prisoners to resist arbitrary commands, was also manifested in the period of negotiations. Despite granting (FW) De Klerk credit for breaking some of the logjams, when De Klerk betrayed his trust, the same anger of the rebellious Mandela re-emerged, berating De Klerk, saying that even from a leader of an illegitimate regime one expected some sense of integrity.

But this same stubborn determination sometimes required remedial action, even in the 1990s. Anyone who knew the late Walter Sisulu would understand that he was one individual who could be relied on to make Mandela “see sense” where it was felt that the “old man” was being “totally and unreasonably obstinate”. The story is told of how Mandela’s security advised him that it was not safe to go into KwaZulu-Natal during the period of IFP/ANC violence, prior to the 1994 elections. Mandela insisted that he would go, irrespective of what intelligence they may have gathered. The security officials were making no progress and decided to secretly phone Sisulu. Sisulu had a word with him and firmly indicated that he would not proceed. Mandela cancelled the visit and laughingly scolded them for “reporting” him.

If we unpack stubbornness as steadfastness, unwillingness to yield in the quest for freedom we can understand better what Mandela did in order to prepare himself to advance the struggle, while confined in prison. There are some who, once imprisoned, throw themselves on the mercy of their jailers or spend their prison time purely consumed by their personal suffering. Now everyone suffered in prison and there cannot be minimising of the extent of suffering experienced by someone who was a life prisoner, who served 27 of those years, sometimes under very harsh conditions, experiencing or warding off assaults and arbitrary actions aimed at worsening their situation and breaking their spirit.

Part of the Mandela obstinacy was that he remained fixed in his gaze, he remained preoccupied with achieving freedom, even in the darkest times. This is seen in some of his writings in prison, where it is clear that, as most political prisoners prided themselves, there was no way he could be “rehabilitated” and made to accept one of various offers to release him in return for conditions that amounted to a renunciation of the struggle. (The writing was not legally permitted and would be confiscated when found, as did happen when material was periodically discovered.)

But Mandela’s same stubbornness as unconditional dedication, led him to change course when it was required, most dramatically when he initiated talks that led, together with efforts of the exiled leadership to the opening of negotiations and ultimately, made political freedom possible.

On being released he was very clear that he had to work in a manner that made the peace and made it last, even if it required compromises and symbolic gestures to supporters of apartheid, as in wearing the Springbok jersey (as a way of nation building) or visiting Betsie Verwoerd. Mandela was prepared to engage in a range of symbolic gestures or make concessions, where these contributed towards achievement of peace and freedom. DM

Raymond Suttner is a scholar and political analyst. He is a visiting professor and strategic adviser to the Dean of the Faculty of Humanities, University of Johannesburg and emeritus professor at Unisa. He served lengthy periods in prison and house arrest for underground and public anti-apartheid activities. His prison memoir Inside Apartheid’s prison was reissued with a new introduction in 2017. He blogs at and his Twitter handle is @raymondsuttner


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