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Mandela’s political genius

By Sue Cullinan
Posted on Friday, 5 February 2010 09:47

In the Know features an interview, opinion or analysis from the people making the news in Africa each week.

Twenty years ago, on 11 February 1990, Nelson Mandela emerged triumphant from Victor-Verster prison, a free man. John Carlin’s book Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the game that made a Nation was the basis for the new feature film, Invictus, directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon. Here, Sue Cullinan speaks to John Carlin about Mandela’s utterly improbable political achievement.

The Africa Report: You covered South Africa for the Independent newspaper from 1989-1995. When did you come up with the idea for a book on Mandela and the World Cup Rugby?

John Carlin: It was after I left South Africa. I had the notion of a book about South Africa and in particular about Mandela – and then there were all the biographies, including the autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, so I thought it had all been said already. But I worked on a PBS documentary of Mandela’s life in 1999 which ended with the 1995 rugby World Cup final. It really was an amazing event – the most extraordinary political event masquerading as a rugby game – but I only had the ‘lightbulb’ moment about a year later when a friend saw the documentary and said how she was struck by that moment.

So then you went to see Mandela and put the proposal to him?

Yes, in 2001. That’s described in the introduction to the book, how enthusiastic he was about the project. And then on the same day I interviewed the rugby player Hennie le Roux. So I had these two interviews, but then I put the whole thing to one side and didn’t do anything for about five years. But I always had it at the back of my mind and in 2005-6, at the instigation of my agent, decided to write it down.

You say at the beginning of the book that the story was a way to “shine a light on Mandela’s political genius”, the way he wins people over.

Well there are two things the book seeks to do, with the rugby event as the climax, and that is to show Mandela’s two quite extraordinary political achievements which perhaps no other leader in a democratic environment has ever struck before, which is on the one hand persuading black South Africa to set aside the impulse of vengeance, which so many wanted, but rather to embrace reconciliation; and on the other persuading white South Africa to love him. When he comes out of prison in 1990 most were programmed to regard him as Americans regard Osama Bin Laden and within five years they have crowned him king. That rugby world cup was when white South Africa did what black South Africans had done in 1990, when he came out of prison and they crowned Mandela king. It was just such an extraordinary political achievement, so utterly improbable.

You say in the book that perhaps there could be lessons in Mandela’s achievements for those seeking conciliation, for example in ‘knowing thine enemy’ the way that Mandela understood the Afrikaner, having studied their history all that time on Robben Island.

Yes, there are applicable lessons for sure: one of them is to put yourself in your enemy’s shoes, understand his or her position. And if you know your enemy better than your enemy knows you, then right there you have an advantage. And Mandela definitely did know them, better than they knew him, by the time he came out of prison and that was a large part of it.

But there are other ingredients in Mandela’s irresistible cocktail – that he treats everyone with respect and with a generosity that understands, without making a ceremony of it, that it’s an accident what colour skin you’re born with and to some extent what political clothes you’re wearing. He meets someone (like South Africa’s former rulers) and cuts through all the political clothes, the political banners, to get to the heart of the solitary human being there and connect with them at that level.

It’s amazing how anyone who has met Mandela (a) melts and (b) feels like a better human being. He does, as Abraham Lincoln describes, “appeal to the better angels of human nature.” That is something quite magical, almost a genius, that he has. Everyone who meets him feels like a better person. Perhaps that’s the secret of charm.

What comes across in your book is how conscious Mandela was of the process that was unfolding during the negotiations leading up to his release, and then how conscious he was of the opportunity represented by the Rugby World Cup.

Yes, I think he was a extraordinarily strategic person, I mean he went to prison as a relatively young, impulsive man who wanted to “take power the Castro way” and he came out understanding it would only end by some kind of political arrangement. He then sets it very clearly as his strategic objective, so that when he’s put to the test he knows exactly how to respond, he doesn’t lose sight of the main goal, liberating his country, establishing a stable democracy, ending apartheid, he has that clarity.

And the World Cup initiative? How far was that crafted in advance?

Well, ‘crafted’ might be too strong a word. You know what they say about Yasser Arafat, that he ‘never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity’? Mandela was the precise opposite. He sees an opportunity and he seizes it. Most political leaders in Mandela’s position would see the World Cup coming along and think, oh my God, this is a sport that blacks hate and whites love, this a situation of damage control. Mandela instead sees that out of the most unlikely circumstances there is an opportunity for racial reconciliation. I’m not saying he crafted it every step of the way, but he understood the implications of it. That’s why he invited [South African rugby captain] François Pienaar to meet with him only a month after coming to power.

That said, no-one could have predicted what was going to happen, even before the game, when he went down onto the pitch and everyone on the grounds started chanting “Nelson, Nelson”. So although he didn’t craft every detail, he set out the general objectives and created the right mood. In the end, the result surpassed everyone’s expectations. Everyone was united in the most improbable of causes.

Moving forward to 2010: Do you think that the honeymoon phase is over in South Africa and that circumstances are very different for the football world cup – or will the country come together in the same way?

For all of the whinging that goes on, the fact is Mandela’s strategic objective has been established, and what Mandela did with the Rugby World Cup was but one of the instruments to achieve that. South Africa is a stable democracy. It is astonishing that the years have gone by and there hasn’t been a glimmer of a right-wing threat, no-one questions the legitimacy of the government; there have been four different presidents since Mandela came to power. There is rule of law ? there might be lawlessness, but the rule of law works ? but there is freedom of the press, and freedom of the unions. So the big-picture institutional stuff is very solid and stable. Once you look at the details, the crime and corruption, there are things to get agitated about, But if you compare South Africa to others in similar socio-economic categories, or countries in a similar stage of historical evolution, take Russia: which is the most impressive democracy of the two?

When the Rugby World Cup happened, things were still touch and go. Things could have gone very wrong. In 1992-3 we were oscillating between hope and despair… and now South Africa is about to host biggest public event in the world.

Overall, I think if you stand back, there is a lot more to admire in South Africa than to despise. If you compare it to other countries in political transition and where South Africa came from, what has been achieved is incredible.

Any predictions for the 2010 FIFA World Cup?

Well, football is the least predictable sport, but I think Spain could do quite well. And of course no-one has great expectations for Bafana Bafana, but Côte d’Ivoire could do really well and be taken on as the favoured team which would be great for Africa.

And as for South Africa, I think that 2010 will bring the country back together. Above all, what it’s going to do is make people happy – and there’s a value in that right there.

To read a review ofInvictusby Issy Largardien, see the February-March edition of The Africa Report, on sale now.

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