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How Nelson Mandela Bent History

Twenty-five years after his election, and nearly 101 years after his birth, Nelson Mandela is remembered as a statesman, a liberator, an icon, and a secular saint. But before he was any of those things, he was a highly skilled politician.

SEATTLE – Twenty-five years ago, South Africa held its first free elections after the end of apartheid. The African National Congress won overwhelmingly, and its leader, Nelson Mandela, began to knit the country back together as its new president. As post-apartheid South Africa completes its sixth democratic election, it is worth recalling Mandela’s formidable legacy.

In 1994, I was a young journalist at the Financial Times, tasked with watching Clarence Makwetu, the leader of the far-left Pan Africanist Congress party, cast his vote. Makwetu had no interest in reconciliation. During apartheid, the PAC’s military wing had adopted the slogan “one settler, one bullet,” and its members had called for pushing “all whites into the sea.”

With no reliable polling of black voters having ever taken place in South Africa, some predicted that Makwetu and his party could secure up to one-quarter of the vote. Such an outcome, many worried, could trigger an eruption of violence, and at first it seemed like that would be the case.

On the morning Makwetu cast his ballot, a disaffected white extremist detonated a bomb at the Johannesburg airport. With the war in ex-Yugoslavia still raging and the Rwandan genocide in its first weeks, the international media rushed in to cover what they expected would be another brutal story: an impending South African civil war between white extremists on the right and black extremists on the left.

Of course, that is not what happened. Just four years after being released from prison – having served 27 years for conspiring to overthrow the state – Mandela was swept into power with more than 60% of the vote, while Makwetu and the PAC won barely 1%. But that does not mean that the outcome – of the vote, or of Mandela’s presidency – was inevitable.

History always seems like destiny once the ink is dry. Today, it is hard to imagine a world where Mandela didn’t lift South Africa from the ruins of apartheid and lay the foundations for a united country. But South Africa in 1994 was a hotbed of tensions and divisions, many of which seemed insurmountable.

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In fact, in the weeks before the vote, former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger led a team of global dignitaries to try to mediate a dispute between many of the country’s political parties and the Zulu-dominated Inkatha Freedom Party, which was committed to boycotting the election. Kissinger had barely left his Johannesburg hotel room when he called it quits. “Mediation never started,” he said, “so mediation hasn’t failed.”

In that moment, it felt like failure was indeed inevitable, and it probably would have been were it not for Mandela. Days before the voting started, he helped to persuade Inkatha to abandon its boycott. This proved vital to his victory, and – as a result – to the tremendous progress South Africa has made since.

Twenty-five years after his election, and nearly 101 years after his birth, Mandela is remembered as a statesman, a liberator, an icon, and a secular saint. But before he was any of those things, Mandela was a politician, skilled at building coalitions and charming political opponents.

Years later, I sat watched Steven Spielberg’s 2012 biopic Lincoln, which depicts the 16th US president as a political animal. Lincoln has a big, noble mission – outlawing slavery in the United States Constitution – but he’s also willing to be cunning, even slippery, to achieve it. When the final credits rolled, I thought, “That was Mandela, too.”

Like Lincoln, Mandela believed that history didn’t always bend people; sometimes, people could bend history. And then he went out and proved it.

This Mandela – more so than Mandela the saint – is the one that I prefer to remember. After all, if it takes a saint to solve a seemingly intractable problem like apartheid, then what chance do any of us mere mortals have? But if a striver, a hustler, a charming and determined optimist can make a difference, then anyone has a shot at helping to create a better world.

This sentiment has been a driving force in my own career. Not long after Mandela stepped down from the presidency in 1999, I – by then a Washington, DC-based journalist – wrote an FT article highlighting perceptions of the United Nations as a sclerotic organization. It caught the eye of the new head of the UN Development Programme, who agreed that the organization needed changing and wanted me to help.

When I accepted the UN position, I did not expect to stay long; I took just a one-year leave of absence from my journalism job. But, 18 years later, I’m still working in global development, now at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. In retrospect, it’s clear that the career change was driven, to a significant extent, by what Mandela might urge me to do: “Like slavery and apartheid,” he said, “poverty is not natural. It can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings.”

Over the last 20 years, we have seen this happen; the global poverty rate has fallen by three-quarters, thanks largely to Asia’s rapid economic development. In Africa, though progress has been uneven, poverty rates in some countries – such as Ethiopia, Tanzania, Ghana, and Rwanda – have dropped by two-thirds or more. Reductions in infant and child mortality and improvements in education have been even more widespread.

As for South Africa, it is still wrestling with the legacy of apartheid; the rise of a black middle class has not been sufficient to offset continuing racial disparities in income, education, and health. Nonetheless, by almost every measure, the country is doing better than 25 years ago. The latest evidence of this progress is the just-completed election: no one anticipated significant unrest, regardless of the outcome.

Mandela was right: suffering can be overcome by the actions of human beings. Even a single person can bend history.

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