South Africa


Lessons from Mandela’s leadership (Part 5)

Raymond Suttner

It has been repeatedly stressed that it is undesirable to simply use effusive language to describe Nelson Mandela but rather we should understand his qualities and learn from them. This final article of the series on Mandela’s leadership draws broad lessons from Mandela, which may have application as to how we deal with difficult issues in our own lives.

This article first appeared on

This series has repeatedly referred to the problem of celebrating Nelson Mandela without articulating the qualities that attached to him, that ought to be admired in the month or centenary of his birth. (This article is part of a series on Mandela’s leadership. Previous contributions this year, are to be found here; here; here and here.

In this final article of the series I attempt to draw broad lessons from Mandela, qualities from which we can learn and possibly apply in our own lives. These qualities include:

Mandela listened. He did this out of respect for the people who spoke to him, but he also listened in order to learn. When Mandela practised as a lawyer it is reported how he (and his partner in the law firm, Oliver Tambo) used to listen for hours and hours to clients who often had long and involved stories to tell. The average attorney gets impatient with long accounts of the background to whatever offence has brought the client to have consultations, because much of the story has no bearing on what are called the “facts in issue”, that is, what is legally relevant. There is a distinction between what is legally relevant and what may be the most important element of the story from a conventional sense of logic and empathy, where one tries to understand the hurt that someone may have suffered.

Mandela and Tambo were interested, in the first place, in the pain that people experienced, as human beings in apartheid South Africa. That did not mean they were not obliged to frame their information in accordance with the requirements of the law, for any ensuing court case. But they were interested in each and every human being they encountered, in the details of their experiences and suffering.

When Mandela first came out of prison it was a very fast-moving period and it is only now, some 28 years later that I am taking stock of some things that happened then, that were not part of the issues that were urgent, in the ever-present violence and killings, bombings, threats of further violence, negotiations, concessions and so on.

In that context of urgency, I did not then appreciate how carefully Mandela used to listen to those of us – who worked with him at that time – when we raised issues, how he would put aside whatever he was doing in order to hear what we had to say. He would give undivided attention.

That was respect that he showed, not only to us who were in or became part of the ANC leadership or were ANC members, but to every human being because no matter how famous he had become he still showed every person that they mattered and were important to him as fellow human beings who experienced joys and sorrows.

But listening is also important in developing a political vision. The Freedom Charter was developed after a period when “Freedom Volunteers” travelled, hearing people from all walks of life, all over the country, listening to what it was that they wanted changed in their lives and what type of South Africa they wanted to see in its place. The ANC and its allies at the time understood that the weight of the Freedom Charter would depend on the level of popular participation, that went into its making. Each and every person should see that they contributed to what became the final document. That is why it was different from all the other human rights documents that had been developed earlier and later by the ANC and other organisations, in South Africa and internationally. That is one of the reasons why it continues to bear considerable authority today. (On the process of collecting “demands” for the Freedom Charter, see Raymond Suttner and Jeremy Cronin, 50 Years of the Freedom Charter, 2006, pp. 4-124, David Everatt, The Origins of Non-Racialism, 2009, chapter 8, Ismail Vadi, The Congress of the People and Freedom Charter, 2015.)

For a political leader who develops a vision, listening has a similar importance. The person who speaks to a leader ought to inform that leader’s understanding and the vision that s/he develops. If one wants to embrace what people need, one cannot do so through simply reading books or analysing their situation, important as these intellectual activities are. One also needs to hear what people feel is their pain, how they understand their condition, which is not always found in books. If one goes through that process, which Mandela did, the vision that is ultimately developed is recognised as speaking to the suffering that people experienced.

Respect for others. This is related to listening but is part of a broader quality that Mandela lived out and that was the respect that he showed for all human beings. He would take trouble to know the names of people, not just politically important people but every person whom he met, the kitchen workers and ground staff of aeroplanes on which he travelled, and countless other “ordinary people”. In so doing he affirmed their humanity that had in the case of black people been trampled on under apartheid. (See Nelson Mandela and Mandla Langa, Dare not Linger. The Presidential Years, 2018.)

Sensitivity to anxieties of minorities. This respect went wider in that Mandela had sensitivity to the fears of others – minority groups, in particular. He engaged in a range of gestures towards the white Afrikaner community in order to assure them that they had nothing to fear from majority rule. This included a range of actions with which some of us were uncomfortable at the time, as with his visit to Betsie Verwoerd and similar symbolic acts. But in Mandela’s eyes these were necessary in order to secure the peace and democratic elections, that remained under threat until the last days before the voting.

Mandela’s inclusivity. If you disagreed or clashed with Mandela it would not make a difference to his relationship with you, even if he got angry during the course of a discussion, which sometimes happened. He nursed no grudges and formed no factions around him, ensuring that everyone felt part of the organisation in a full sense. No one was out in the cold or “marginalised”.

The sense of inclusivity was also manifested in the way he reached out to his opponents, partly to ensure stability. He was concerned about those liberation movements which did not make the threshold for parliament and wanted to find ways of including them. (Dare not Linger, p. 49). He also devoted considerable energy to ensure that right wing groups accepted the results of democratic elections, by reaching out to them and trying to make them feel they had a place. Addressing these anxieties included visiting PW Botha in George and meeting with Afrikaner generals like Constand Viljoen. (See Dare not Linger, pp 27ff.)

Preparation. Mandela, like Chief Albert Luthuli and Mohandas Karamchand (“Mahatma”) Gandhi and many others who faced the likelihood of danger or even death, stress the importance of preparation. Both Gandhi and Luthuli placed great weight on the importance of taking oaths, binding oneself to a course of action. That was part of Hindu culture, for Gandhi and it was introduced into the Defiance Campaign, where volunteers had to undertake to conduct themselves in a particular way. (Mary Benson, South Africa. The Struggle for a Birthright. 1985, pp.144-5). An oath was also introduced for induction of members of umKhonto weSizwe.

Mandela, when reflecting on the prospect of the death penalty remarks on the importance of being prepared for that, not saying one is ready to die without taking steps to make oneself psychologically prepared to face that possibility. (Nelson Mandela, Long walk to freedom, p. 360.) If one does not take these preparatory steps one may falter when the moment for sacrifice or execution arises. That may be why there were people who often performed in an exemplary fashion in public, open political activities but were not ready when the time of danger arrived, and one found oneself in the hands of “the enemy”. Mandela refers to this happening quite early on in his experience, with former ANC president JS Moroka in the trial following the Defiance campaign, when Moroka broke ranks with his comrades and hired his own separate defence team, seeking to avoid a sentence. (Dare not linger, p. xvii. The ANC Youth League of which Mandela was a founder member had propelled Moroka into the presidency when the former president, AB Xuma was unwilling to endorse the Youth League’s programme of action. While Moroka endorsed it, he had clearly not prepared himself for the personal implications.)

But Mandela’s understanding of courage, was to choose to be brave. (Richard Stengel, Nelson Mandela, 2010, chapter 1) But that sense of preparation for moments when bravery was “chosen” or required, was also found in the painstaking steps he took to ready himself for whatever tasks lay ahead, gathering the necessary information to understand people or grievances that people had before hearing them articulate these themselves. No one who sought his counsel would find him unprepared.

Reconciliation and security. A mistake that is often made by many who were too young to understand or insufficiently conversant with the conditions under which Mandela emerged from prison, is to think that he fetishised or romanticised reconciliation. He did see the need to reach out to all people in South Africa, especially in the conditions of the time. There was a need to try to build a new society from one torn apart through dispossession and conflict between its peoples. But that need was enhanced in South Africa of the 1990s by the threat of violent right-wing resistance, real conspiracies that are outlined, inter alia, in Dare not linger.

Even without violence there could be countless bureaucratic blockages caused by people who wanted the new South Africa to fail. Mandela wanted to neutralise such resistance and the well-known charm he deployed, was often with a political purpose. Mandla Langa relates, an incident after his entry to the presidency:

Mandela was quick to dispel the illusion that he would be getting rid of the old personnel. Although strapped for time, Mandela made a point of shaking hands with each and every member of staff. Fanie Pretorius, then chief director in the office of the president, remembers the occasion:

He started from the left side and he shook hands with every staff member, and about a quarter along the line he came to a lady who always had a stern face, though she was a friendly person. When he took her hand, he said in Afrikaans, Is jy kwaad vir my? (Are you cross with me?’}, and everybody laughed and the ice was broken. He continued and gave the message to all the staff. There was nothing more and everybody was relieved. He was Nelson Mandela at that moment, with the warmth and the acceptance. Everybody would have eaten out of his hands-there was no negative feeling from anybody after that in the staff, at least that we were aware of. (Dare not linger, p. 62)’”

Changing human being. Never complacent. What this series of articles has tried to show is that Mandela was never complacent. When he was younger he was more aggressive and less willing to listen to others. But gradually, as he was convinced of the need to change he did make the necessary adjustments in his own conduct and his own personality. It is said that prison was a major influence, that as he put it, he “matured” in prison. (Stengel, Nelson Mandela, p. 17). However, many changes and periods of modification we can identify, what is important is that Mandela was willing to change and find ways of being what was required in these situations. We all face such moments where we can stick by that with which we are comfortable or alternatively become what is needed. Sometimes it requires courage. What we learn from Mandela is that courage does not necessarily come naturally to anyone. If we know what is needed, we need to find ways of preparing ourselves to do what we know is right. DM

Raymond Suttner is a scholar and political analyst. He is a visiting professor and strategic advisor 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


Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted


This article is free to read.

Sign up for free or sign in to continue reading.

Unlike our competitors, we don’t force you to pay to read the news but we do need your email address to make your experience better.

Nearly there! Create a password to finish signing up with us:

Please enter your password or get a sign in link if you’ve forgotten

Open Sesame! Thanks for signing up.

We would like our readers to start paying for Daily Maverick...

…but we are not going to force you to. Over 10 million users come to us each month for the news. We have not put it behind a paywall because the truth should not be a luxury.

Instead we ask our readers who can afford to contribute, even a small amount each month, to do so.

If you appreciate it and want to see us keep going then please consider contributing whatever you can.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options

Daily Maverick Elections Toolbox

Feeling powerless in politics?

Equip yourself with the tools you need for an informed decision this election. Get the Elections Toolbox with shareable party manifesto guide.