Sunday, December 8, 2013

Mandela's Formula

Guest post by Max Iacono

One of modern history’s greatest figures has just died.  I tried to understand in a simplified -and by necessity highly reduced and summary manner- (for myself)  what was at the root of his greatness and success and so I thought I also would share my views and opinions with others on this blog.
Mandela arose at a particular historical moment in a particular place.  That is, just like everyone else was born and begins and then develops or “implements”  his/her life at a particular time, in a particular place and in a particular context.  He came into and confronted an extremely unjust and also deeply entrenched societal situation and context -with significant historical roots- also supported explicitly or tacitly by a large number of the world’s great powers:  Apartheid and the (criminal) apartheid regime.  

At first he thought the best approach to overthrow the regime and establish a more fair and just form of government and a more just and equitable society in South Africa would be through the ideas and methods of Gandhi.

While not abandoning the ideas and practices of Gandhi after some time he realized that organization, discipline and armed struggle also would be necessary.  Many things happened and he then ended up in prison for 27 years.   He never lost hope and provided an ongoing example to his fellow political prisoners- inmates.   Even his prison guards held him in high respect.   Eventually the more intelligent parts of the apartheid regime realized that it was in their own interest to release Mandela and establish a democracy in South Africa with both blacks and whites being able to vote and participate.  The alternative would most likely have been (sooner or later) a bloodbath and the collapse of the regime.  The international legitimacy of the regime also was increasingly lower and falling further.

But how to unite the country and the many different kinds of people -not only blacks and whites and those of other or mixed races but also the many tribal and other ethnic divisions that exist-  and the various economic and political interests living there,  after so much injustice and brutality and oppression had taken place -i.e. had been committed- for so many years and decades?

What is the logic of the so called “truth, justice and reconciliation” commissions -and of their desired outcomes- that Mandela created, established and supported?

To understand this we need to work backwards.   If one desires good societal outcomes (political, economic, social, cultural and institutional) and a better future in which the people are also far more united one needs some kind of reconciliation process leading to greater unity.  To achieve reconciliation there must be some kind of JUSTICE.  And one cannot have justice without first knowing and exposing and clearly stating what the TRUTH was, had been, and is now, and why. 

Meaning here the truth -regarding both facts and processes in both general and specific terms- also about all the various forms of oppression, brutality, injustices and crimes committed.  Justice does not have to mean punishment in all cases nor does it mean retribution or vengeance, but it can mean some forms of compensation or at least a public admission of guilt.  And reconciliation does not just mean to “forgive and forget”.  So getting the above formula and the balance of its components right was (and remains) very important.  But what is most important -something which Mandela realized- is the future, not the past.  Though there cannot be a good future if a society has not fully come to terms with its past, and in the present. Mandela understood this very clearly and not only understood it,  but also invented a practical method to achieve it.

Mandela mobilized and deployed various personal characteristics -which he continually further developed and improved over time-,  over the many years of his struggle in various situations and roles.

1)    Courage, integrity and a concern for the practical welfare of people (all people)
2)    A long-term and medium-term vision that things could and would change but that this would not happen overnight and would require (collectively)  staying the course for very many years.
3)    A flexible and practical strategy or a set of complementary and variable strategies over time to accomplish the vision.
4)    An ability to read the historical moment correctly and “seize it” and implement appropriate tactics to achieve his and the collective strategies.
5)    An ability to recognize and admit to one’s own mistakes and correct them in an ongoing fashion.
6)    An ability to articulate his thoughts and visions both to his fellow ANC members as well as to the wider South African public and masses –and also his opponents- and an ability to convince them and bring various groups onboard while at the same time always listening to others and their own views.
7)    A strong sense of pragmatism and the ability to compromise where and when necessary without losing sight of his goals or the basic principles involved.   A willingness and readiness to work with one’s enemies in partnership to achieve a better society. 
8)    An ability and willingness and desire to see past himself and his own needs or personal interests or situation and always keep the needs and well being of the people first and foremost in mind and in his actions.
9)    A firm belief that leaders should lead by example.  This, and some of his other personal characteristics above led him to decide to become only a one term President. And this also so as to set a needed example to the rest of Africa.  He also saw the struggle as a long process in which many leaders and many other people needed continually to emerge, develop and become involved.  He saw that overthrowing the apartheid regime and replacing it with something much better was only the beginning of an even longer struggle to bring practical justice, fairness, equity and reasonable prosperity to all the people of South Africa.
10)    He understood that unity and establishing a humane society and justice and equity in South Africa –itself a multi-stage and ongoing process- were closely tied to establishing unity and humanity elsewhere.  Both in the rest of Africa country by country and regionally but also on other continents and in other situations. He remained a strong advocate of human rights, justice, truth and fairness and equality everywhere, and not only in “his own” country.   Hence he had a true cosmopolitan identity and world vision.

So how can the above be summed up even more succinctly?  I think of the following words or phrases:

Unquestionable integrity, courage, selflessness, putting the people first, leading by example,  having a big-picture vision and flexible strategies,  always being pragmatic, recognizing one’s own mistakes and rectifying them, listening to others, working with one’s enemies,  and an unremitting commitment to truth, justice and human rights everywhere,  rising above petty or even major divisions and interests, staying the course no matter what, never giving up, being unpretentious and being able to relate to people of all ages and origins and identities.  A “tall order”?   Yes, but Mandela was a very tall man-  who also became taller and taller as he progressed through his own life and the history of his country. 

The above is at least the way I personally have “understood” Mandela and what he has represented and done.   I am by no means an expert on his life or on South Africa.  Only one observer and one deep admirer among millions or perhaps billions -though also without exalting him which I am certain he would not have wished for me, or anyone else,  to do-.  

THANK YOU MR. MANDELA for what you have done for South Africa, for what you have done for Africa,  for what you have done for The World,  and for what you have taught me personally through your life and example.   If I have somehow managed to understand and learn only 10% of what you have shown me and the world I surely would have become a better man.  Your example continues to shine the light for me in the right directions.

P.S.  A recent very good article by the “Common Dreams” staff  also has just come out with the title “12 Mandela Quotes that won’t be in the Corporate Media Obituaries”.   I think they are a fitting post scriptum and a useful addition of some specifics to what I wrote myself in more general terms above.  They also help to put in historical perspective the fact that now that he is dead lots of people would like to identify with him and his legacy as though they always had agreed with him and supported him. But had they?  Truth is very useful in this respect too since it is only through establishing the truth that one can learn from one’s mistakes, whether moral or political.   Here are the quotes: 

“We wanted to share some of Nelson Mandela’s quotes which we don't expect to read in the corporate media's obituaries:

    1) "A critical, independent and investigative press is the lifeblood of any democracy. The press must be free from state interference. It must have the economic strength to stand up to the blandishments of government officials. It must have sufficient independence from vested interests to be bold and inquiring without fear or favor. It must enjoy the protection of the constitution, so that it can protect our rights as citizens."

    2) "If there is a country that has committed unspeakable atrocities in the world, it is the United States of America. They don't care for human beings."

    3) "The current world financial crisis also starkly reminds us that many of the concepts that guided our sense of how the world and its affairs are best ordered, have suddenly been shown to be wanting.”

    4) "Gandhi rejects the Adam Smith notion of human nature as motivated by self-interest and brute needs and returns us to our spiritual dimension with its impulses for nonviolence, justice and equality. He exposes the fallacy of the claim that everyone can be rich and successful provided they work hard. He points to the millions who work themselves to the bone and still remain hungry."

    5) "There is no doubt that the United States now feels that they are the only superpower in the world and they can do what they like."

    6) “It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.”

    7) “Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice. Like Slavery and Apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings. Sometimes it falls on a generation to be great. YOU can be that great generation. Let your greatness blossom.”

    8) “We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.”

    9) “No single person can liberate a country. You can only liberate a country if you act as a collective.”

    10) "If the United States of America or Britain is having elections, they don't ask for observers from Africa or from Asia. But when we have elections, they want observers."

    11) “When a man is denied the right to live the life he believes in, he has no choice but to become an outlaw.”

        12) On Gandhi: "From his understanding of wealth and poverty came his understanding     of labor and capital, which led him to the solution of trusteeship     based on the belief     that there is no private ownership of capital; it is given in trust for     redistribution and equalization. Similarly, while recognizing differential aptitudes and     talents, he holds that these are gifts from God to be used for the collective good."


Additional very good articles –which also are very useful since they provide guidelines to action- and which describe Mandela’s “gifts to the world’s Justice Movements “and the potential contribution of his ideas and practices to the world’s environmental and climate change movements”,  can be found here , here and here

And for those who are interested in reading additional recent coverage and views and opinions about Mandela's life and legacy,  you also can read the following three articles here, here and here and view the two You Tube videos here and here . And the more complete  feature film –which was recently completed and is soon to be released- about Mandela’s life based on Mandela’s own autobiography –is also well worth seeing. 


  1. When Mandela was 70 and still in prison there was a walk organised from Scotland to London (more than 400 miles) to end in a rally in Wembley stadium. The walk passed within one mile of our house near the Scottish Border. My son who was five years old and I walked with them. They walked quickly so we only walked for 4 miles. I am proud we did that.

  2. so a big funeral and another excuse to jump in a plane for anyone who thinks they're important and fancies a little holiday, oops sorry i mean funeral, in south africa.

    1. Yes I would agree. For some it will be an excuse to travel and primarily a way to try to associate themselves with Mandela and what he stood for. But for at least some it will be to pay their respects and be counted among his real friends and supporters.

  3. For those who may be interested these are two other very good articles about Mandela and his life and legacy: “The Meaning of Mandela” by Douglas Foster:

    and Working To Honour Nelson Mandela’s Legacy by Qaanitah Hunter and Estelle Ellis:

    Douglas Foster is author of “After Mandela: The Struggle for Freedom in Post Apartheid South Africa” and is associate professor at the Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University.



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)