Nelson Mandela and his South African rainbow nation

Nelson Mandela and his South African rainbow nation

At the outset, my plan for this post was to focus on Nelson Mandela, whose tale of transformation is even more striking, and more improbable, than that of Margaret Thatcher. When Mr Mandela became president of South Africa in 1994, virtually nobody in the entire land believed in his program for building “a rainbow nation”.

Before addressing this remarkable case, though, I would like to return for a moment to our definitions, and even add to them a bit. For me, successful transactional leaders execute tasks well. They are women and men who do their jobs efficiently, engage others in their projects, and consistently deliver what they promise.

Of course, becoming a highly effective transactional leader is quite an achievement in and of itself. Transformational leaders, though, take things further, inspiring changes in mindset among their followers and showing them a new path.

To contrast these two notions yet more, there is a distinction I often make in my teaching and public speaking. While a transactional leader brings results, a transformational leader writes a new story.

As we demonstrated last time, this is precisely what Margaret Thatcher did as prime minister. What she provided for Britain was a broader vision, an aspirational image of “who we can be”. Her impact was extraordinary because she saw far beyond the daily execution tasks and programs. Not only was she effective at performing the “nuts and bolts” of her job, she put her nation on a new course.

If the case of Prime Minister Thatcher is an exceptional and unexpected tale of profound change, that of Nelson Mandela is even more so. In fact, Mr Mandela’s journey is so markedly uncommon, and such a clear illustration of what transformational leadership can be, that it is worth analyzing in some detail.

These past months, as I began writing about Joe Biden’s situation in some recent posts, it caused me to reflect on South Africa’s first post-Apartheid president. For, if Mr Biden’s bipartisan management endeavor is one that many experts are calling “impossible”, Mr Mandela’s challenge must be considered far more daunting, and his ultimate success far less likely.

When Mandela ascended to the presidency in 1994, Apartheid had just ended. Blacks, voting for the first time in a free election, gave Mr Mandela’s African National Congress Party a sweeping victory, with more than 62% of the popular vote.

It would be a sizable understatement to say that the new president inherited a profoundly divided nation. Large numbers of blacks, who had been dominated socially and economically for decades, longed for revenge. Many whites, fearing reprisals, were making their plans to leave the country.

On his first day as chief executive, President Mandela walked to his office, passing by scores of white government officials. Most of them were packing up their personal belongings, in anticipation of losing their jobs.

The new president understood the significance of that moment. Convincing these workers to stay on, to play a part in defining the new political context, was critical for gaining support among the white community.

In Mr Mandela’s judgment, working with both races was the only path to future prosperity for South Africa. He did not want to see a massive exodus of white people, with their valuable skills and capital, which is exactly what had happened when neighboring Mozambique had won its independence in 1975.

However, realizing his vision of a rainbow nation, as he came to call it, would require the skill of a true statesman. At the beginning of his term as president, it was a concept opposed not only by the whites, but by a majority of blacks as well.

So, just how did this extraordinary individual convince each of these divergent constituencies to follow his lead? We can begin to look at this tale in our next post.



Image: Flickr user ~My aim is true~