Nelson Mandela life story: The Magician's Legacy

He led his people to democracy but his greatest achievement was to teach us how to look for the best in ourselves

John Carlin
Friday 06 December 2013 02:00 GMT

On 11 February 1990, the day Nelson Mandela was released from prison, only a handful of people knew what he looked like.

Such had been the resonance of the "Release Mandela" campaign that his was one of the best-known names in the world. Yet had he wandered unannounced that afternoon into Cape Town's Parade, where 50,000 people were waiting for him, and mingled among the crowd, no one would have known who he was.

The concern that a lot of us who were on his side felt was that he would fall short of the vast expectations his legend had generated. On a couple of counts, he did not let us down. He was quite as dapper as we had been led to believe he had been in the 1950s, when he used to have his suits made at the same tailor as the gold-and-diamond magnate Harry Oppenheimer; and he had a fabulous 1,000-volt smile. Yet the very first public speech he made, at dusk that day before a thinning crowd that had waited six hours for him to appear, did not turn out to be the earth-shaking moment many had hoped it would be. The perception would be confirmed over time that he was no orator, like Martin Luther King or the Nobel peace prize-winning Archbishop Desmond Tutu. His delivery was drearily declamatory; his voice, monotone and metallic.

&main=The next morning - the first on which Mandela would wake up a free man after 27 years and six months behind bars - held what seemed an even stiffer test: a news conference before some 200 local and international journalists. Mandela had only appeared before a TV camera once. It had been a one-on-one interview with a British ITN reporter a year before his arrest, in 1961. By 1990, every politician alive had undergone a course on how to handle himself on TV. And here was Mandela, who had gone to jail long before TV arrived in South Africa, about to face the public exercise politicians enjoyed least. Not only was there no script, there was no way of knowing what the journalists might ask. In Mandela's case, the potential for disaster was particularly high. It would be almost impossible, or so most of us thought at the time, for him to live up to his billing. That less than charismatic speech the evening before had served to confirm the general misgivings.

And, after all, he was 71 years old; he had spent nearly three decades in bleak isolation. How well could he be?

How savvy? How up to the task?

The news conference took place at 7am in the garden of Archbishop Tutu's official Cape Town residence, where Mandela and his wife, Winnie, had spent the night. The mansion, in the gabled Cape Dutch style, sat on the steep, thickly wooded foothills of Table Mountain, whose rectangular outline Mandela had gazed upon across the water from Robben Island for 20 of his prison years. When Mandela emerged from the house, Winnie by his side, the dew still sat on the leaves. The couple smiled and waved their way down a set of stone steps to the lawn where the press awaited. Tutu, jigging with delight, led the way, eager as a Shakespearean courtier on his monarch's wedding day. There was just the one jolt, when Mandela stopped at his table and glanced at an artillery of furry cylindrical objects that would be arrayed before him when he sat down.

One of his aides whispered something in his ear, to which Mandela responded with a nod and an "Oh, I see..." The furry objects, as every other politician alive would have known, were TV microphones.

From that moment on, Mandela did not put a foot wrong. He placated his supporters and fellow leaders in the African National Congress by restating his in-principle commitment to "the armed struggle" and to the hoary old ANC policy (soon to be ditched) of nationalising the country's mineral wealth. At the same time, he signalled his resolve to lead his country down the path of peaceful negotiations after a decade in which it had seemed to be heading down the road to civil war.

Given that most white South Africans had been programmed to regard Mandela much as Americans now regard Osama bin Laden, he had work to do. But he got down to it immediately, taking the immensely bold step, given his followers' long pent-up anger, of describing President FW de Klerk - a 20-year veteran of apartheid government who had just come to power in yet another whites-only "general" election - as "a man of integrity".

Then he acknowledged the kindness of many of his white jailers - "that has wiped out any bitterness a man could have" - and declared how "absolutely surprised" he had been by the number of white people who had been on the streets to greet him the day before. He also made a point of being courteous to a senior political reporter of Die Burger, apartheid's Pravda, who had the courage to identify himself before asking his question. Mandela exclaimed with seemingly genuine delight on hearing who he was, saying how pleased he was to put a face to a name he had known and read for so long.

"Oh, how good to meet you at last!" Mandela beamed. Most important of all, Mandela stated that the way to a negotiated solution lay in a simple-sounding formula: reconciling white fears with black aspirations. "The ANC is very much concerned to address the question of the concern whites have over the demand of one person, one vote," he said. "They insist on... guarantees... to ensure that the realisation of this demand does not result in the domination of whites by blacks. We understand those feelings, and the ANC is concerned to address that problem and to find a solution which will suit both the blacks and whites of this country."

When the press conference ended, 45 minutes after it began, everyone's anxieties about his fitness for leadership felt absurdly misplaced. What had been advertised as Mandela's first public grilling soon eased into the balmy outdoor equivalent of a cosy fireside chat. We in the press realised we were in the presence of one of the towering figures of modern times. The hype had been true. He had the air, the grace and command of a man born to be king.

And here was born too what would become the core piece of conventional thinking of Mandela. "What a great man he must be to have emerged from prison without bitterness! What superhuman generosity! What nobility! What goodness!"

Yes. Certainly. All that is true. He may in justice be seen as a sort of secular saint. But that is not the whole truth, not the deeper truth about Mandela, which is more interesting than that. The point about Mandela is that he was first and foremost a unique and extraordinary leader, a genius of the political art. If politics is essentially about persuading, winning over, capturing hearts and minds, no one has ever done that better than Mandela. He pulled off not one but two impossible political feats: he convinced his black followers to turn away from vengeance; and, within five years of leaving prison, he had practically the totality of white South Africa falling at his feet.

The first task was remarkable, given the scale of the indignity the black population of South Africa had endured for decades, if not centuries, at the hands of the whites, whom they outnumbered six to one. Apartheid was described to me once by Nelson Mandela as "a moral genocide" - not physical liquidation, but the deliberate extermination of a people's self-respect. The hatred, and the lust for revenge, ran deep; yet he turned his people away from violence to reconciliation, sometimes bluntly so, and sometimes - as I witnessed myself in stadiums full of angry black ANC supporters - actually threatening to resign as their leader if they insisted on calling for weapons and blood.

In the year before Mandela came out of prison, the year of my arrival in South Africa, nobody was quite sure what the relative support might be of the ANC and their rivals in the Pan-Africanist Congress, an organisation with a far more radical, vengeful agenda whose chilling slogan was "One settler, one bullet." When the country's first democratic elections were held in April 1994, Mandela's ANC won nearly 66 per cent of the vote; the PAC, one per cent. ANC supporters would taunt them: "One settler, one per cent!"

That in itself was an extraordinary political triumph. But Mandela's second achievement, winning over the whites - easing their fears, as he put it - was even more remarkable. He set out to do this, as he had set out to cool black anger, not out of any pacifist convictions, but because he believed this was the only method that would work. Had he convinced himself that an armed takeover offered the best means to achieve the ANC's historic objective, the overthrow of apartheid and the establishment of a real democracy, that is the path he would have chosen. And, indeed, he did choose it. He had been the founder and first commander of the ANC's armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe ("Spear of the Nation"), back in 1961. An angry middle-aged lawyer, he had dreamed then, as did many in the ANC, of what they used to call "seizing power the Castro way". One of the reasons he was caught by the police in 1962 was his insistence on sporting a beard and wearing camouflage jackets in the revolutionary chic style of his then hero, Che Guevara. (Mandela, as his biographer and old friend Anthony Sampson used to say, "was always a bit of a dandy".) But, as Sampson also used to observe, prison had tempered Mandela.

When, two years after his arrest, the remainder of the Umkhonto leadership followed him into jail, Mandela understood that the notion of seizing power by the Cuban insurrectionary method was a fairy tale. The state's security apparatus was just too strong. So, while the historic objective remained the same, the method to get there had to change. Mandela sat in his tiny cell, reflected long and hard, and came to a conclusion from which he would never again budge: there was only one thing for it: to resort to war by other means, by diplomacy, politics and, eventually, negotiations.

The remarkable thing was that he should even have been thinking in this way. He had been condemned to life in prison; logic indicated, back in 1964 when the sentence was passed, that he would die on Robben Island. Yet somehow he knew this would not be his fate. FW de Klerk, returning the "man-of-integrity" compliment, once said that Mandela was "a man of destiny".

And he was right. Like a Shakespearean or classical hero, he had a sense of himself, deeper than arrogance, as a man born to bestride the stage. He somehow knew that he was destined to be his people's liberator. And, from early on in prison, that is what he prepared to be.

Objective number one was "know your enemy". If he was going to get under the skin of the Afrikaners, the dominant white tribe, the one that controlled the state, he would have to find out who they were, where they came from, what their strengths and vanities were. So, to the horror of some of his fellow inmates in Robben Island's political wing, he set about teaching himself the Afrikaans language; he read books on Afrikaans history; and he got to know the jailers: brutish, poorly educated men in whom the racist strain ran deep. Prison was his laboratory and the jailers were his guinea pigs. The experiments were so successful that by the time he was able to put them into practice in real life, at his first meeting with the government in 1985, he had almost every prison officer eating out of his hand.

It was a secret meeting, not made public until after Mandela's release, with apartheid's minister of justice, Kobie Coetsee. This was the first time since the foundation of the ANC in 1912 that a member of the white government had consented to hold talks of any kind with a black leader. The reason, as Coetsee would tell me some years later, was that the government felt "cornered". The combination of growing internal and external political pressure persuaded President PW Botha, "the big crocodile", to explore the prospect of talks. Coetsee, as minister also of "correctional services", held the keys to Mandela's cell. But on meeting his prisoner, he just rolled over. "His gravitas, his dignitas, his honestas!" Coetsee, who fancied himself a Classics scholar, would enthuse to me later in recollection of that first encounter.

Coetsee wept as he talked of Mandela. If the next person to hold secret talks with him in prison did not, it was probably because he was physically unable to generate tears. Niel Barnard, chief of apartheid's National Intelligence Service during the 1980s, was perceived as quite possibly the most sinister man on the planet in those days. But Barnard, who met Mandela in jail more than 60 times, rolled over too. I spoke to him for many hours, and never did he refer to Mandela as "Mandela"; it was always "Mr Mandela" or, more often, "the old man", as if he were talking about his own father.

Mandela's charm and powers of persuasion convinced Coetsee and Barnard - and, through them, the government of the long-ruling National Party (apartheid's inventors) - to release him and seek a negotiated political accommodation with the black majority. Mandela came out of prison and in no time won over the white establishment press. The man from Die Burger was in his pocket from day two; most of the other top Afrikaans political journalists, whom he made a point of meeting immediately, followed within a week.

Formal negotiations began, and the ANC and the National Party soon found they were partners as much as rivals. The problem was the far right - "the bitter- enders", as they used to be called - who convinced themselves the government was selling out the white man to the black "Communists". They were a disparate bunch, heavily armed and with plenty of military training after South Africa's recent wars in neighbouring states. They became more dangerous early in 1993 when they all came together in the new Afrikaner Volksfront under the leadership of a famous former general called Constand Viljoen (pronounced "Fillyewn"). When word reached Mandela that Viljoen was running around the country trying to set up clandestine military cells, he did what by now came naturally: he invited the general for secret talks at his home in Johannesburg.

Viljoen arrived with a small delegation, but Mandela gently took the general to one side and invited him to take a seat next to him in the living room.

Formal discussions around a table would start presently, but first Mandela offered Viljoen a cup of tea, and poured it himself. "Do you take milk, general?" The general said he did.

"Would you like some sugar?" "Yes, please, Mr Mandela," said the general.

Viljoen stirred his tea in a state of quiet confusion, thrown by Mandela's courtly respect. This was not at all what he had expected. What he did not - and by his upbringing could not - see at that moment was that in political terms he was out of his class. Mandela, as a man of the world rather than a man of one volk, had a capacity that the general lacked to penetrate the minds of people culturally different from himself. He knew when to flatter and soothe; he knew also when he could go on the offensive, without causing offence, thus conveying an impression of directness that he knew the general would take to. Years later, Mandela told me: "I have worked with Afrikaners ever since I was in training as a lawyer, and I found them to be simple and straightforward. If he doesn't like you, an Afrikaner, he'll say: ‘Gaan kak' (‘Get lost' would be a polite translation of the Boer original). But if he likes you, then he agrees with you. They have the ability to stick to what they have undertaken."

Mandela - polite, but decidedly not mincing his words -worked on making Viljoen like him. "Mandela began by saying that the Afrikaner people had done him and his people a lot of harm," General Viljoen recalled at a meeting I had with him three years ago, "and yet somehow he had a great respect for the Afrikaners. He said that maybe it was because, though it was hard to explain to outsiders, the Afrikaner had a humanity about him.

He said that if the child of an Afrikaner's farm labourer got sick, the Afrikaner farmer would take him in his bakkie - his station wagon - to the hospital, and phone and check up on him and take his parents to see him and be decent. At the same time, the Afrikaner farmer will treat his worker hard, expect him to work hard. He will be a demanding employer, Mandela said, but he was also human, and that aspect of the Afrikaner was something Mandela was impressed by."

Viljoen was amazed at Mandela's ability to get past the surface caricatures and reach such a deep understanding, as he saw it, of the true nature of the Afrikaner. Just how many black farm labourers Mandela might have found to validate his assessment of the "baas" is another matter. The point was that Mandela knew that his portrait of the Afrikaner as rugged Christian would conform absolutely to Viljoen's own vision of his people.

Viljoen was intrigued when Mandela then pointed out the similarities between the histories of the blacks and the Afrikaners, both of whom had fought freedom wars. And, of course, Mandela was doing something that Viljoen had not expected. He was doing the general the courtesy of speaking to him in his own language.

Mandela had gauged the mood just right, establishing his bona fides with Viljoen as a man with whom he could talk and expect to be understood. But the real substance of the encounter came at the end of their conversation over that same cup of tea.

"Look, general," Mandela said gravely. "If you want to go to war, we cannot win. You have too many people too well armed, with military training. I know we cannot fight you. If, however, you do go to war, for sure you will not win either. Because, one, the international community will be totally behind us. And, two, we are too many, and you cannot kill us all."

"This is so," General Viljoen replied.

"There can be no winner."

And that was it. That was the understanding on which the far right and the black liberation movement built their dialogue. That first meeting at Mandela's home was the basis for three and a half months of secret talks between delegations of the ANC and the Afrikaner Volksfront. By the end of the year, Viljoen had lost all appetite for the "white resistance struggle"; at the start of 1994, he agreed to abandon the armed route and to take part in South African's first ever democratic elections, in April that year.

I remember seeing him at the opening of the new parliament in May. When Mandela entered the chamber, the general looked at him with eyes of pure love. Twelve years later, when I interviewed Viljoen about those times, his affection and respect for Mandela, the greatest man he had ever met, remained undimmed.

What is the secret? What did Mandela's seemingly irresistible seductive cocktail consist of? First, one has to remember that he was, before anything else, a pragmatist; a canny political fox. But he was also a man of clear principles, of unshakeable integrity, and he conveyed this in a way that his interlocutors could not miss, which in turn generated a sense that this was a man with whom one could safely do business. Other ingredients in the mix included making a point of knowing more about the enemy than the enemy knew about him; treating his antagonists with disarming courtesy and respect; and benumbing and bedazzling them with the disproportionate measure of charisma that was allotted to him at birth.

But there was one more thing; the decisive factor, perhaps. I was talking once, a decade or so ago, to Walter Sisulu, Mandela's best friend - the man who recruited him to the political cause in the 1940s ("If I had never met Walter, I would have saved myself a lot of trouble in life," Mandela would joke) and with whom he spent 25 years in jail. I asked Sisulu whether Mandela had a weakness. He thought for a moment and said: "He has a tendency to trust people too much …" But then Sisulu reflected and added: "But perhaps that is not such a weakness after all."

What he meant, I think, was that, by giving people his trust, Mandela received trust back. He appealed, in Abraham Lincoln's phrase, to people's "better angels". He met people like Coetsee or Barnard or Viljoen, on the face of it not just his political enemies but evil men, and he sought out the best in them. As if understanding that, in the end, our political convictions and prejudices are as much of a lottery as the accident of our skin at birth, Mandela probed the vulnerable individual behind the label, drew out the human common denominators that united him and his interlocutor rather than the received ideas that tore them apart, and appealed to what was best and most generous in him. And that was what Mandela drew out in each case; each time making Coetsee, Barnard, Viljoen - and countless others - feel like better people. He also understood that these white people needed not only their fears soothed, but their guilt redeemed too. As Barnard astutely put it to me, "Mandela has an almost animal instinct for tapping into people's vulnerabilities and reassuring them."

From his early days in prison with his jailers, through the secret talks with the government in the 1980s, to his meetings with the likes of Viljoen, and other white South Africans, what Mandela was doing was extending ever wider his soothing, reassuring, redeeming embrace, until he finally took the whole of white South Africa, and black, into his arms, one year into his presidency, at the day of the Rugby World Cup final of 1995.

He was president by then, and apartheid was dead, but he knew the country was not yet set on a stable course; that at least half the far right had not gone along with General Viljoen's belated peacemongering; that the prospect of right-wing terrorism, with the devastating effect this could have on a fragile young democracy such as South Africa's, had not disappeared.

In rugby, Mandela saw a most unlikely opportunity to achieve his life's dream: to unite all South Africans around a common sense of nationhood and belonging.

Rugby was regarded by black people as "the oppressor's sport", and the South African national team, the green-shirted Springboks, as an appropriately violent symbol of the racist system they loathed. For whites, and especially Afrikaners, rugby was a religion. Most heads of government, confronted, in such a delicate situation, with an event like the Rugby World Cup (which South Africa was hosting), would have either run a mile or, at best, set about making plans to limit the inevitable political damage.

Mandela saw things in a more optimistic and creative light. He would transform the Springboks, this potent symbol of racial division, into an instrument of national reconciliation.

He cajoled his fellow black leaders and grassroots supporters into backing the Springboks in the tournament, often receiving heavy criticism in return. "They would boo me, John. My own people, they would boo me!" he told me once, before recalling with a chuckle one particular occasion when this happened. It was at a rally of ANC militants, most of them black, on the day before the semi-final against France. To the confusion of the crowd, he turned up wearing a green Springbok cap that one of the players had given to him. The gesture revealed the clarity of his convictions as well as his moral courage. Had he been one of those political figures whose message is determined by market-testing, whose aim is always to please, he would have left his cap at home. But Mandela was a leader who led, even if it meant upsetting his own people.

Addressing the crowd, he raised his cap in the air, and said: "You see this cap?" Some said "Yes", but much of the response was a mixture of puzzled murmurs and jeers. "This cap," he went on, "does honour to our boys who are playing France tomorrow. I ask you all to stand behind them.

Because they are our pride, they are your pride." He pointed at them emphatically on the "your", giving them the extraordinary news that the Springboks' victory was their victory, black South Africans' victory, too. And because it was him, and his credibility was vast (no one else in the crowd had spent 27 years in jail for the cause), and he knew how to appeal to their hearts as well as their heads, the crowd came round, beginning to like what they heard.

When he concluded by saying "We want to win the World Cup because we are a new nation", the crowd cheered wildly. Mandela, remembering how that rally had unfolded, smiled at me conspiratorially, chuckled again and said: "Oh, yes, I got them. I got them in the end!"

He also reached out to and "got" the Springbok players - all of whom were white save for one mixed-race player - and enlisted them to the cause, charming the captain, a big blond son of apartheid called Francois Pienaar, at another of his irresistible one-on-one tea-time meetings (this time in the presidential office) and then getting the whole team to make the right noises, strike the right chords to help him to turn black South Africans away from the old resentments.

Pienaar was captivated by Mandela (I have interviewed him at length and he speaks of the man who was his president as if he had been his adored grandfather), and he transmitted his feelings to his team-mates, who were in turn entirely charmed when he made a special visit to them by helicopter at their last training session before the first match of the World Cup, against Australia. A team visit to Robben Island prison the following day proved decisive. I have spoken to eight of the players on that team and, without exception, they were as moved as they were appalled to discover that a man so gracious had been kept in a cell so tiny, by their own people, for so long. Six out of eight wept, recalling their visits to the cell, staggered by his generosity towards them, his embrace of a team that had once symbolised everything he had opposed, everyone who had done him and his people wrong.

As every Springbok player succumbed to what came to be known as "the Mandela magic", white South Africa found itself in a state of confusion not dissimilar to that of the black crowd he had won over the day before the semi-final against France. They struggled to believe the evidence of their own eyes: that the old "terrorist communist" was making their team - their religion - his own. They stopped struggling, and once and for all really did believe at the World Cup final, played at Johannesburg's Ellis Park stadium, on 24 June 1995.

The rivals were New Zealand, the best team in the world, but the Springboks implausibly won and the entire country, black and white, celebrated as never before, united in a common cause for the first time since the arrival of the first white settlers in 1652.

When Mandela walked on to the pitch before the start of the final wearing a green Springbok shirt - another masterly political stunt - the whole of white South Africa, or rather the distinctly right-wing element of white South Africa that the rugby devotees in that stadium represented, fell at his feet.

Large Afrikaners in khaki shorts, tanked up on brandy and Coke, shed fat tears as Mandela walked out on to the field at the end of the game as they chanted - rather, bellowed - over and over again: "Nelson!

Nelson! Nelson! Nelson!"

White South Africa crowned him king with the same fervour that black crowds had crowned him at a Soweto stadium five and a half years earlier, two days after his release. When Mandela stepped up to hand the World Cup trophy to Pienaar, he said: "Thank you, Francois, for what you have done for our country." To which Pienaar, with tremendous presence of mind, and speaking for the entire nation now, replied, "No, Mr President, thank you for what you have done."

The country rejoiced late into the night. "Had you told me before that the whole of Soweto would be dancing on the streets in celebration of a Springbok victory," Archbishop Desmond Tutu told me some time later, "I'd have said: ‘Come off it, man!

What drugs have you been taking?'"

But there were no drugs, unless "Mandela magic" was a drug. Martin Luther King's dream of racial reconciliation really happened in the real waking world. It was the happiest day of Mandela's political life, the one in which everything he had fought for, everything he had sacrificed so much for, the welfare and happiness of his family included, during more than 60 years of struggle, came joyously true.

Utopia did not last, of course. Life is not so easy. Racial divisions remained; subsequent governments were corrupt; Prussian efficiency did not become the hallmark of ANC rulers.

But Mandela's legacy, sealed that day of the World Cup final, was a stable democracy without a peep of violent right-wing dissent in which four elections were held and four presidents took power. South Africa remained, at his passing, one country, where before it had been many. It was as united, on good days, and as divided on bad ones, as the United States of America.

When Mandela went to jail in 1964, as when he left jail in 1990, South Africa was the most racially splintered nation on Earth. So deep were the divisions and injustices that it was not really a country at all. South Africa existed, but the concept of "South African" did not. Mandela was the political genius who invented it.

I'll end my take on Mandela's story with the story of Koos Botha, a man I met in June 2009. Botha is an Afrikaner, around 60 years old, whose first job was as a bureaucrat during the 1970s in the Department of Native Affairs. He was taught, he told me, to see blacks as racially inferior. Apartheid was good; and the further apart the races could be kept, the better.

When Mandela was released, Koos Botha turned to arms. "That terrorist should have been hanged in prison" was the way he thought. One night two years after Mandela's release, Botha and a friend blew up a school in Pretoria that was about to take in its first black students. He subsequently engaged in more terrorist acts, was arrested, jailed and, later, freed under an amnesty. He met Mandela briefly once, just before Mandela became president, and he, like Coetsee and Barnard and Viljoen and all the rest of them, was floored, charmed, baffled, left wondering how on earth he would ever explain to his comrades-in-arms that, contrary to everything they had ever thought and been taught, Mandela was a good guy, a legitimate leader of all South Africans.

"The Rugby World Cup final was a great relief for me," Botha told me. "It was the day every white South African finally saw him as I had done. After that, I never had any more explaining to do."

Today, when you enter Koos Botha's house, immediately on the right there is a door leading to a small study. Look inside and you'll see, on the wall, a big, framed, photograph of Nelson Mandela, flashing that fabulous 1,000-volt smile.

John Carlin was The Independent's South Africa correspondent from 1989 to 1995. His book "Playing The Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation" was published by Atlantic Books in 2008.

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