Despite the vast literature on Nelson Mandela, the qualities that his leadership comprised has been surprisingly neglected. If we are to learn from Mandela, we need to engage with what he did, how he exercised leadership and what considerations he had in mind.

Despite the plethora of articles and books on Nelson Mandela, little is written on the precise qualities from which we can learn and possibly emulate. It is astonishing how little writing attempts to unpack the specific qualities of his leadership. The considerations on which he decided to act are seldom foregrounded and adequately analysed in evaluations of his life. This series of articles attempts to address and interpret some of these qualities. It is not suggested that this is all there is to say on the matter. I hope that many others will engage and take the debate further.

Mandela bent all his efforts in later life towards securing peace and that is both celebrated and a cause of contempt amongst a new generation and some commentators who see the settlement of 1994 as a “sell out” or part of a deal where the whites were “forgiven” as part of a package of “reconciliation without justice”. But how do we understand his leadership, the changed patterns of conduct, in general and as a leader, over time?

Nelson Mandela did not grow up highly politicised and he was not initially a leader. In his early years as a ward of the regent of the Thembu, Chief Jongintaba Dalindyebo, he did not consider himself unfreeNelson Mandela did not grow up highly politicised and he was not initially a leader. In his early years as a ward of the regent of the Thembu, Chief Jongintaba Dalindyebo, he did not consider himself unfree.

“I was not born with a hunger to be free,” Mandela writes in Long Walk to Freedom. He immediately explains, “I was born free – free in every way that I could know. Free to run in the fields near my mother’s hut, free to swim in the clear stream that ran through my village, free to roast mealies under the stars and ride the broad backs of slow-moving bulls. As long as I obeyed my father and abided by the customs of my tribe, I was not troubled by the laws of man or God.”

Even when he became a student at Fort Hare, he did not join the ANC then or become politicised. He was expelled from Fort Hare, not over national political matters but for his unwillingness to compromise on Fort Hare hostel food and the Students Representative Council poll when others did comply with an ultimatum from the principal. This obstinacy, was a quality that would stay with him throughout his life, though what this entailed needs to be interrogated (and will be in a subsequent contribution).

This lack of politicisation is illustrated when he hosts Paul Mahabane, son of a former ANC president, during a university vacation. In visiting Umtata, the local magistrate asked Mahabane to buy him postage stamps. It was common, then, “for any white person to call on any black person to perform a chore”. Mahabane would not take the money, which offended the magistrate, who asked whether he knew who he was. Mahabane replied:

“It is not necessary to know who you are, I know what you are”. When the magistrate asked him what he meant by that he responded: “I mean that you are a rogue!” The magistrate warned that he would “pay dearly for this” and walked away.

Mandela relates this in Long Walk to Freedom and examines his own response and admits to being “extremely uncomfortable” with Mahabane’s behaviour. He respected his courage, but also “found it disturbing”:

“The magistrate knew precisely who I was and I knew that if he had asked me rather than Paul, I would have simply performed the errand and forgotten about it. But I admired Paul for what he had done, even though I was not yet ready to do the same myself. I was beginning to realise that a black man did not have to accept the dozens of petty indignities directed at him each day.”

It seems unlikely that Mandela’s unwillingness to follow Mahabane’s example could be put down to simple cowardice. At that point, Mandela was being schooled to become counsellor to the future Thembu King, Sabata Dalindyebo, under the guidance of the regent. It seems that his conduct was governed by his sense of duty and the need to act out patterns of behaviour and respect, which his guardian may have expected of him. This impression is confirmed in a statement found in his unpublished prison memoir. “With my background I was a bit uncomfortable. . ..” (My italics).

There is another factor that needs to be stressed. Mandela, unlike what many suggest, was part of the Thembu royal family, but not a chief or destined to be a chief. He was, as indicated, being prepared to advise the future Thembu King and that demanded specific conduct on his part, as expected by the regent.

When Mandela (together with the regent’s son Justice) escapes to Johannesburg in 1941, to avoid a marriage arranged by the regent, the conditions are created for Mandela to realise himself in ways beyond what was contemplated in his period of tutelage in Thembuland. Until then Mandela sees his identity almost exclusively as a Thembu and insofar as he has wider links it is with other Xhosa speakers, not yet as an African. He had also been relatively isolated from whites and it was on the Witwatersrand that he would encounter the daily racist humiliations, experienced by most black people, from which he had been relatively shielded in Thembuland.

Mandela on the Witwatersrand 1940s and 1950s

Fortunately for Mandela, when he arrived on the Witwatersrand, as something of a country hick, at the age of 23, physically powerful but also vulnerable, he met Walter Sisulu, then an estate agent and already active in the ANC. On hearing Mandela’s interest in studying law, Sisulu secured a position for him in a law firm, which ultimately enabled him to become an attorney. It was not inevitable that Mandela would take a political route and it is not inconceivable that he could have become a gangster. Thus, Albertina Sisulu, felt protective towards the handsome country boy. “You could see from the way he dressed that he was from the country.” She worried that gangsters in Alexandra, “the Spoilers”, would recruit him and exploit his aggression.

Interestingly, Walter Sisulu immediately appreciated Mandela’s potential leadership capabilities and involved him in ANC activities. In one interview, Sisulu says that they wanted to start a national movement and one day a “national leader”, meaning Mandela, walked into his office. It was not long after his arrival, despite being a relative political novice, that he became one of the founders of the ANC Youth League (ANCYL), in 1944.

Emerging and changing political orientation

In the years that followed the early exclusivist and Africanist orientation of the YL, whereby they refused cooperation with non-Africans, mellowed and they gradually came to support working with whites, Indians and Coloureds and with some who were Communists (although the Communist Party was declared illegal in 1950).

Interestingly, Sisulu was ahead of his comrades in recognising this need for broad unity and Mandela was the last to accept it. It was strange that Mandela bore this hostility because he learnt a great deal from and was close to and admired some of the Communist and Indian Congress leaders. This change in the Youth League and Mandela’s thinking happened when the Youth Leaguers were in transition towards playing a significant role in the “mother body”, with Sisulu elected ANC national Secretary-General in 1949.

But from the time of the Defiance Campaign of 1952, Mandela came to accept non-racial and multi-racial collaboration. According to the late, distinguished resistance historian, Philip Bonner, the leadership may have locked Mandela into a position that demanded this, when they made him Volunteer in chief, in the Defiance Campaign.

This was a period when Mandela and others embarked on a campaign that delegitimised apartheid law and where participants were willing to go to jail or even die for their beliefs. Walter Sisulu explained that the ANC consciously adopted the word “defiance” in order to signify a higher, more intense level of resistance, indeed the emergence of a revolutionary consciousness. The volunteers were known as “defiers of death” because in the course of defiance they were prepared to suffer any response, including death, if need be

At the same time, Mandela, Sisulu and some others, like Ray Mhlaba and Flag Boshielo, were considering resorting to arms. They believed that the space for legal activities and even peaceful action was being closed. When Sisulu, then Secretary-General of the ANC, was invited to the People’s Republic of China, he and Mandela secretly agreed, without consultation with the rest of the ANC leadership, that when in China he would seek support for armed struggle. The Chinese declined to provide arms saying conditions were not ready to embark on military resistance. But Mandela and Sisulu also recognised, and this became an important feature of both of their leadership, that even if an idea was logical, it could not be advanced successfully without preparing the support base and membership for a new course of action.

It was necessary if armed struggle were to succeed that the masses should see with their own eyes, that every peaceful method had been exhausted and, as happened in Sharpeville, had been drowned in blood. It was then that ANC members, albeit not all, were ready to support or join MK, whose first commander Mandela became.

It was in this period, it seems and is argued in some recent scholarship, that Mandela became a member of the SACP. Sisulu appeared to have been recruited earlier and both may have been in the Central Committee. The reason why it was kept secret may have been that in the anti-communist world in which we live(d) it was important that ANC leaders who were foregrounded should not be “de-legitimised” in the eyes of some by virtue of the “communist stigma”. It was a central question only for some McCarthyite types, but it would have proved a distraction from the ANC struggle, and possibly limited international support for the ANC and the anti-apartheid struggle more broadly.

That Mandela had this orientation, is clearly hinted in parts of Long Walk to Freedom and information relating to some of his activities, like the “M-Plan”. Mandela was deeply involved in developing the M-plan (the M stands for Mandela, though some PAC sources say it stands for AP Mda), a mode of operation intended to prepare the organisation for illegality, being structured in semi-secret cells. They were provided with texts to study and these bear a distinct Marxist and pro-Communist orientation. Mandela was also deeply influenced in his political evolution by famous Communists like Moses Kotane, JB Marks and Michael Harmel.

In prison, he reports that he gave lectures on Marxism. On his wall he, discloses in Long Walk to Freedom, he had photographs of both Lenin and Stalin. Who would put such photographs on their wall without being a Communist or at least a firm Communist sympathiser?

That Mandela was or may have been a Communist is mentioned purely within the context of his political evolution. What he did in the ANC did not result from “communist control” or direction but had to be argued within the structures of the ANC. That remained true of Communist involvement in the ANC in the years that followed. Communists in the ANC had to win political positions through debates in ANC structures and they did not always agree with one another. The extent of loyalty that some SACP leaders displayed towards the ANC became a source of contention, with some believing that the Communist Party was losing its independent existence. (See Raymond Suttner, The ANC Underground, 2008, pages 53-6.)

The impact of Mandela becoming a Communist does not lie in that leading to remote control of the ANC from the SACP or “Moscow”. Its significance relates to the modes of political influence that Mandela experienced in the course of developing as a leader. There is no doubt that he continued to grow and the political understanding that he brought to bear on his leadership, continued to develop in the years that followed.