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Africa Policy Journal

Topic / Public Leadership and Management

Mandela – Genius of Restraint

What makes Nelson Mandela a remarkable man?

The African National Congress (“ANC”), which ledthe resistance movement against apartheid, is the presentruling party in South Africa. After joining the ANC in 1942, Nelson Mandela initially followed a path of non-violent resistance to end apartheid in South Africa. By 1961, with this approach proving unsuccessful, Mandela co-founded and raised international support for an armed military wing to the ANC, the Umkhonto we Sizwe (“UwS”). Mandela was arrested in 1962 and endured 27 years in prison, of which 18 were on the infamous Robben Island.  I have subsequently visited Robben Island and can only imagine the isolated and deprived lifestyle that Mandela endured. In February 1985 Mandela was offered his freedom with the proviso that he ‘unconditionally rejected violence as a political weapon’. Mandela declined this offer, releasing a statement through his daughter that stated,”What freedom am I being offered while the organization of the people remains banned? Only free men can negotiate. A prisoner cannot enter into contracts”. By so doing, Mandela displayed an unrelenting character committed to putting the freedom of all Black South Africans above his own.

Finally, Mandela was released from prison in February 1990. Mandela encouraged internationals to continue pressuring the apartheid government for reform. He stated his commitment to work toward peace, but also declared that the ANC’s armed struggle would continue until the black majority received the right to vote.  Mandela was thus very firm on the rights of Black South Africans, but also signaled a willingness to move towards reconciliation, setting aside any bitterness or malice because of his prison ordeal.

Nelson Mandela’s first speech in Johannesburg following his release from prison was at a mass rally at Soccer City stadium on 13 February 1990. At the age of 16, I was privileged to have been in attendance– albeit in defiance of my parents instructions, which strictly forbid me to attend out offear that the event would end in the type of bloodshed and violence that echoes throughout our struggle’s history.  The three-and–a-half-hour long walk to the stadium and back, and the insubordination, was worth it.  Little did I know at that time that fast forwarding some twenty years to 11 July 2010 I would again be at Soccer City stadium for the World Cup soccer final. Mandela’s advocacy is credited with having clinched our country’s chance to be the first African nation to host the tournament. Again, I would see Nelson Mandela make a grand appearance on the field as part of the Cup’s closing ceremony.

Now back to the Soccer City mass rally – Nelson Mandela reiterated what he had stated in 1964 when he said that he was as opposed to Black domination as Blacks were opposed to White domination.  He asked us to demonstrate our goodwill to White South Africans and convince them that a new South Africa was a better South Africa for all. This was done to allay White fears about any reprisals. Mandela also urged the police to abandon apartheid and the use of violence to enforce apartheid, as he believed that this made armed struggle against apartheid remain necessary in the eyes of activists. Mandela further urged all Black political groups to restrain their members and stop them from committing inter-political party violence.

Thus, Nelson Mandela was very effective in significantly strengthening the political power of Black South Africans. At the same time he was a genius at exercising restraint by not advocating for revenge against White South Africans. He was also able to restrain various factions in order to make the monumental political transition peaceful.  Moreover, Mandela’s appeal to everyone for restraint was not emotional, but pragmatic. Mandela understood that the White, apartheid government controlled the wealth of the country and the military, while the Black population had strength in its numbers, representing 90% of the South African population. It was a delicate dance in which each side needed the other for transformation and to avert a potentially bloody and catastrophic civil war.

Mandela can arguably be compared to the 19th century Prussian leader Otto von Bismarck. Where Mandela refused to accept the principle of apartheid, similarly Bismarck refused to accept the principle that in international relations the power scales were tilted towards Austria, in spite of Prussia’s greater strength. As Mandela exercised restraint domestically, Bismarck was able to exercise restraint internationally by defeating Austria, but not completely destroying it.  By so doing Bismarck was the doyen of recalibrating the European power scales in favor of Prussia while still maintaining peace and the balance of power in Europe.

Subsequent to his release from prison, Mandela became President of the ANC and led the ANC in the negotiations towards South Africa’s transformation to a democratic country. Talks briefly broke down following killings in a black township in June 1992; Mandela withdrew the ANC from negotiations, accusing the ruling party of links to these killings, but resumed them again in September 1992. In 1993 Chris Hani, leader of the South African Communist Party and Chief of Staff of UwS, was assassinated. In a memorable speech, Mandela appealed to everyone for calm, and whilesome riots did follow, South Africa was fortunately spared mass anarchy.

In 1993 Mandela and De Klerk were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for peace in recognition of South Africa’s peaceful transition from apartheid to multiracial democracy. I, myself, am proudly a fruit of Mandela’s labor and at the age of 20, I cast my vote in the historic first democratic elections held on 27 April 1994. Elation abounded in Black townships as we all patiently endured very long queues to cast our votes, fully aware of this momentous symbol of our new freedom. At the age of 77, Mandela became the country’s first Black president, serving office from 10 May 1994 to 14 June 1999.

Mandela’s justification for espousing restraint lies in this artful quotation of his: “If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner”.


1. Nelson Mandela. Wikipedia. [Online] December 16, 2011. [Cited: December 20, 2011.]

2. Mandela, Nelson. Long Walk to Freedom. Long Walk to Freedom. New York : Little, Brown and Company Hachette Book Group, 1994.

3. Nelson Mandela. Biography. [Online] A@E Television Networks.