WASHINGTON – When, after 27 years, Nelson Mandela was finally released from prison, the world marveled at his generous spirit, even temperament, genteel manners, disarming wit, ready smile and lack of bitterness.
Admirable as they were, those saintly virtues don’t begin to explain his political genius. Mandela was also cunning, iron-willed, bullheaded, contemptuous — and more embittered than he let on. He needed all of his traits — soft and hard — to engineer a political miracle: persuading a sitting government to negotiate its own abdication by yielding power to the very people it had ruthlessly oppressed.
Historic transfers of that magnitude typically occur only at gunpoint. To pull it off peacefully, Mandela, who died Thursday, knew that he had to tame the racial fears and hatreds that have haunted beautiful South Africa since the first whites settled there four centuries ago. He needed to teach militant blacks that they couldn’t take revenge and frightened whites that they shouldn’t fear retribution.
Mandela didn’t do all that by himself. On both sides of the racial divide, he had the help of legions of sophisticated negotiators determined to find a peaceful path to democracy. His main partner, President Frederik W. de Klerk, was a shrewd Afrikaner who had the foresight to understand that the grotesque apartheid system he once championed was destroying his country, and he had the fortitude to stick with his surrender-without-a-fight strategy through four arduous years of start-and-stop negotiations, even as the deal grew less attractive for the white minority that had put him in power.
The two men never got on well. And Mandela had no compunctions about using de Klerk as a scapegoat whenever it served his purposes.
At a news conference the day before they were honored as co-recipients of the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize, Mandela repeated his (dubious) accusation that de Klerk was the mastermind behind deadly faction fighting among rival black groups. The charge infuriated de Klerk but played well among militants in the black townships.
Mandela sometimes used his martyr’s halo like a club against his own supporters. At a campaign rally in 1994, when some rowdy black youths ripped down the banner of a small political party they considered corrupt, Mandela called them “hooligans” and “animals,” saying they were a disgrace to the liberation movement. He ordered the chastened teenagers to rehang the banner, which they promptly did.
But as the rally was breaking up, he gave them back their dignity. He told them that he loved them and that they would be comrades forever. Scold, flatter, demand, cajole — when you occupy the moral high ground, your tactical options are practically limitless. Mandela’s genius was knowing how and when to deploy them all.
In those days, South Africa had plenty of white militants, too. The most dangerous moment of Mandela’s presidential campaign came when several thousand heavily armed whites left their farms and drove to Bophuthatswana, one of the black homelands set up under apartheid, where they planned to join the forces of the pro-apartheid black puppet government and derail the election.
Instead, their presumed allies turned on them, and the day quickly devolved into a bloody, boozy fiasco. A photo that captured the symbolism of the last gasp of the white militants — published on front pages around the world — depicted a wounded, khaki-clad white farmer pleading for mercy as a young black homeland soldier hovered over him with a rifle. The young man executed the farmer on the spot.
Two months later, Mandela was elected president. It took a few days to count the ballots, and to pass time he invited small groups of foreign correspondents into a hotel suite, where he conducted interviews.
During my session, I asked about that young soldier. The day of the incident, candidate Mandela had condemned the shooting and said that the rule of law must prevail. Now that he was about to become president, I asked, would he bring that soldier to justice?
Mandela gave me a cold stare. “Why is it that the Western press would focus so much on that one case when so many thousands of blacks have been the victims of so much political violence for so many years?”
I had a response, but my tongue went numb. None of the other reporters in the room dared to venture a followup. Case closed. The great man knew how to play the race card.
When our interview session came to a close, I broke one of the cardinal rules of journalism: I handed Nelson Mandela a campaign poster that I had collected as a keepsake and asked him to sign it. He gave me a firm handshake and warm smile and wrote a lovely note. It hangs in my office, where I look at it every day.
Paul Taylor was The Washington Post’s bureau chief in South Africa from 1992 to 1995.