Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

09 December 2013

Mandela’s “Miracle”: Empathy and Perseverance

[For a brief eulogy to Mandela, and an essay on a friend of Islam, click here.]

Mandela’s “Miracle”
How the “Miracle” Worked
The Nuclear Dawning
Mandela’s Deal

When a universally admired leader dies, our task as his survivors is not to mourn his passing, although mourning comes naturally. Nor is it to praise him, who can no longer hear. Incessant praise can come to resemble undeserved self-congratulation: we seek to claim the fallen leader’s mantle by praising him.

Our real tasks are to discover the leader’s secrets and emulate them. Not only is emulation the sincerest form of praise. Our age of trade, pollution and nuclear weapons demands no less.

Apotheosis would be the worst we could do. Nelson Mandela was not a god. He was an immensely wise and practical leader. We made Jesus the Son of God, and it took us two millennia to put his wisdom into practice. Our species simply doesn’t have that kind of time any more.

If we cannot decipher Mandela’s wisdom and put it quickly into practice, we could lose the earthly paradise that modern technology and our global economy now promise. We could re-wage the last century’s horrible wars, this time with nuclear weapons. We could poison ourselves and ruin our planet with unchecked pollution. In the worst case, we could extinguish ourselves, as we almost did in October 1962.

So, like the primate-mimics from whom we all descended, we must emulate Mandela and spread his “miracle” and his wisdom worldwide. There is little time to spare.

Mandela’s “Miracle”

At first glance, what Nelson Mandela achieved does seem like a miracle. From inside a prison cell, he liberated his people—the vast majority of South Africans. In the process, he averted what could have been humanity’s most terrible race war. Just look at Zimbabwe or even Syria today, and you have an idea of what South Africa could have become without Mandela’s leadership.

While incarcerated, Mandela had no weapons. He had no direct communication with the outside world. The Apartheid regime forbade media in his country to mention his name or show his image. Every physical object available to him, including books and newspapers, had to be approved by his enemies. He was potentially under surveillance twenty-four hours a day. For nearly all of his time behind bars, his jailers and the rulers of his country hated and feared him.

Mandela’s only tools were his mind and his character. His only support was from his own sorely pressed people and a distant and sometimes indifferent international community. His roots in African tribal royalty helped, for he had a confident, patrician bearing that impressed all who met him.

Most of us would consider his circumstances helpless and hopeless. Yet with these tools alone, Mandela made his “miracle.”

By the time the regime released him in 1990, Apartheid’s end, his presidency, and South Africa’s democracy were all foreordained. Four years of secret negotiation, which preceded his release, had set the course of history. This remarkable man had negotiated his people’s freedom and “regime change” from inside a prison cell.

How the “Miracle” Worked

Is there a detailed account of the negotiations? I don’t know. But there should be. Before they are forgotten, someone should transcribe them, translate them into simple language and publish them. They might become a new New Testament for our age.

But however stunning his achievements, Mandela was no god. Nor was his strategy any miracle. He was a mortal man of immense wisdom and talent. Most of all, he was a clear thinker. We may not all be able to reach his heights. But we can all try to emulate him, learn and grow.

In retrospect, Mandela’s strategy was simple. Its primary ingredients were empathy and perseverance.

He had courage and toughness, too, in abundance. But they are not especially rare qualities. Every soldier who goes into battle has courage. So does every general who leads his troops into battle. And Mandela’s enemies—South Africa’s Apartheid oppressors—were as tough as tough can be.

What made Mandela special was neither courage nor toughness, although both helped. The primary reasons for his stunning success were his clarity of vision and his empathy. It’s hard to know which was more important. The two qualities blended, intertwined and reinforced each other. Perhaps they are indistinguishable.

Perseverance was also important. He he never lost sight of his goals and their rightness. In his darkest nights in prison, he saw the lights of fairness and freedom shining bright as day. He kept at it when most of us, under his circumstances, might have given up in despair.

As our own Yankee history shows, perseverance is vital in bringing oppressed people justice. It is even more vital for bringing change peacefully. Mandela’s extraordinary patience and perseverance averted what might have been a terrible race war.

So the secret of Mandela’s success was no miracle. It was his special combination of empathy and perseverance. He understood that his white enemies were not irredeemably evil. They were just afraid. He built his success on the clarity of that understanding.

The white progenitors of Apartheid had come to a strange land uninvited. They were a tiny minority, but they had better technology and better weapons than the natives. So they settled, prospered, multiplied and grew to dominate. As they did so, they made South Africa their home.

After several generations, the uninvited settlers had nowhere else to go. South Africa had become their ancestral homeland.

But they considered themselves and their civilization superior. So they drew themselves apart. They created Apartheid, with its stringent anti-miscegenation laws, to maintain their racial and cultural purity. They built a small, isolated cultural island in a sea of native people and non-white immigrants, especially Indians.

The result was unsustainable. The ruling pure whites kept all the others in subjugation and mostly in poverty. They were surrounded by a vast majority of restless and increasingly impatient others.

Not only were they surrounded. They depended upon the ones they oppressed for labor and therefore for sustenance. The 10% or so of pure whites could hardly have operated or supplied the whole nation. And as much as the whites tried to hold themselves apart, they had to deal with all the others. They let them into their businesses and (as servants and contractors) into their homes every day.

So the white minority was afraid, and rightly so. Nothing provokes fear more than knowing that people you have wronged are all around you, and that you depend on them. Mandela understood this, even while physically helpless in prison. Instead of getting angry or frustrated, he empathized.

There were only three logically possible outcomes. First, there might be a race war. If the whites lost, they would be dispossessed, expelled or extinguished. If they won, the tension would only get worse, and so would the fear. They and their nation would become global pariahs. Neither outcome was especially attractive.

Second, the then-current situation could continue. But so would the insecurity and the fear, and the others’ impatience would only grow.

Finally, the whites could make a deal. We’ll relent, they could say, if you won’t take revenge for the wrongs we’ve done you.

The Nuclear Dawning

I think the light dawned for South Africa’s white leaders when they looked at their nuclear-weapons program with clear eyes. The expense and terrible implications of their joint nuclear program with Israel startled them.

Nuclear weapons were the logical conclusion of the oppressive course they had set. Nukes were (and still are) the ultimate in weapons. In abstract theory, their awesome power could counterbalance the tremendous disparity in numbers that white South Africans faced.

But practical questions undermined that simplistic analysis. The whites’ potential enemies lived all around them and among them. How would they use their nukes if that awful choice ever came? On themselves?

Even if they could localize nukes’ use, for example, on a rampaging inimical army, what of the land? The radioactive fallout would spread unpredictably. Parts of the land that the whites, too, loved would become radioactive and uninhabitable for decades or centuries, just like Fukushima and its environs today.

So white South Africa abandoned its nuclear weapons program for a simple, logical reason. The end result of using nukes to maintain Apartheid would have been nuclear seppuku for South Africa, including its whites.

That stark choice was the reductio ad absurdum that woke the white leadership up. The white rulers abandoned their nuclear program and joined the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in 1991.

After that, they could fight a race war with conventional weapons or continue as they were, foregoing Mandela’s fairness and wisdom as he aged and died. Another South African wise enough to contain their oppressed people’s justified rage might never appear.

So they wised up and made a deal while they could. Apartheid ended, and Nelson Mandela became president in 1994, at the age of 71.

Mandela’s Deal

It’s unclear whether Mandela knew about the nuclear program. Probably he didn’t. The program was a closely-guarded secret, and the imprisoned Mandela barely had access to general news.

Mandela just pursued his dream with his trademark empathy and perseverance. Through four years of negotiation, from his lonely prison cell, he never wavered from his goals: the end of Apartheid, freedom for his people (and all South Africans), and a true democracy.

In retrospect, the final bargain was absurdly simple. No revenge and freedom from fear, in exchange for freedom and justice for the majority. Both sides gained, and both won freedom, although of different kinds.

As President of South Africa, Mandela kept his part of the bargain assiduously. He used his Truth and Reconciliation Commission to give his people a national catharsis and blunt their thirst for revenge. Although few whites came forward to confess their sins, Mandela and his people cried, forgave, and kept their side of the bargain.

Now it’s up to Mandela’s South African successors to continue that bargain and keep the peace. Their task is somewhat different today, for democracy is not enough. Apartheid is history, but economic inequality is still rampant.

Now all South Africans—including the black leadership—must fulfill the other side of Mandela’s bargain: justice for his people and all South Africans. Persistent poverty is not justice, especially if it derives from past discrimination. And it could lead to the type of unrest and revenge that Mandela worked so hard to forestall. Oddly enough, working hard for economic justice is now the best guarantee for whites against revenge and for blacks of continued support for their leadership.

Social cohesion matters. Indeed, it may be the ultimate social good. South Africa’s task today is to build it on the strong foundation that Mandela poured. Our own task here at home is much the same.


Stripped to its essence, Mandela’s secret was simple. Fear has no logic. It is our species’ strongest emotion . It can make us do terrible, irrational things, to others and to ourselves. Lessen the fear, and “miracles” become possible.

It took Mandela four long years, negotiating from inside his prison cell, to assuage white South Africans’ fears without abandoning his goals. That partial success was just enough to get him released from prison and his opponents really thinking. It took another four years for him to negotiate real democracy and an end to Apartheid. Once free and democratic elections were declared, his leadership became inevitable.

Mandela’s extraordinary perseverance and toughness of mind helped. But empathy was his most powerful tool. He could see what drove his worst enemies, empathize with them, and assuage their fears.

His achievements were remarkable and admirable. But they were neither miracles nor godlike. They are reproducible by others—especially by leaders who don’t have to work from an isolated prison cell.

Our task, as Mandela’s survivors, is to reproduce those miracles and make this new century far better than the last. The best praise and respect we can pay him is to spread his empathy, wisdom and peace.

We have carrots, and we have sticks. The carrots are the paradise that global trade, communication and cooperation could bring in geopolitics, the economy and the arts. The sticks are the threats of horrible wars—and even species self-extinction—deriving from struggles over resources, the spread of nuclear weapons, the pollution of our planet, and runaway global warming.

Mandela gave us a plan and a template for resolving large-scale human conflict. His problem and his solution have surprising analogies in the South China Sea, in Israel and Palestine, and in the Little Cold War between the US and Iran, which already has lasted longer than the Big Cold War with the Soviets.

We can resolve those conflicts by following Mandela’s path. Empathy is the key, and peaceful perseverance the engine. Future essays will discuss how.



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