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Mandela: Lessons in Charisma

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From the art of negotiation to grand – and small – gestures, here’s 10 things to take from the departed Mandela

1. Enemies must be embraced

“Mandela had the capacity to understand why people were in the position they were and sympathise with them,” Sky News political editor Adam Boulton tells ShortList. It was this empathy that allowed him to reach out to his captors who regularly abused their power. He introduced his eight prison officers as his “guard of honour” when his lawyer visited, and learned Afrikaans to speak with them in their language. Boulton adds, “He subsequently revisited Robben Island and stayed in touch with some of his guards.”

2. Grudges get you nowhere

“Resentment is like drinking poison and hoping it will kill your enemies,” Mandela once said. He stuck to his word in 1990, when he walked out of prison after 27 unjust years, and claimed, “As I walked out the door towards my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I would still be in prison.”

3. Image is power

The traditional Madiba shirt, which became Mandela’s iconic look, was debuted at the first democratic parliament in May 1994. “He very consciously designed his image,” Boulton tells us. “He did not want to be seen as just another leader in a suit going to summits. His whole dimension was rather cosy and relaxed. You could see Mandela from the back [of the summit] – you knew who it was.”

4. ‘Shepherds’ make the best leaders

As a young man in the tiny village of Mvezo, Mandela would eavesdrop on tribal council meetings, noticing that the chief “worked like a shepherd… He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realising that all along they are being directed from behind.” This remained his style as ANC leader and South African president.

5. Gambling can pay off

As an integral part of the Youth League’s takeover of ANC [African National Congress] leadership in the Forties, Mandela gambled – highly successfully – with the party’s rules. Boulton notes, “During his rise to prominence before he came to trial, his ‘Black Pimpernel’ era, he was willing to take the risk and the consequences, but always doing it from a very considered and intellectual perspective as a trained lawyer.” In 1987, ignoring the ANC’s fundamental ‘never have contact with the enemy’, Mandela initiated talks with senior government, which led to the unravelling of apartheid.

6. Grand gestures build bridges

In South Africa, rugby was traditionally an elitist, white sport. During the 1974 British Lions tour, black South Africans detested the game and its connotations so strongly that they packed the stadiums’ cramped, ‘blacks-only’ enclosures to cheer on the Lions. As such, when South Africa won the 1995 World Cup, and Mandela strode proudly on to the pitch in a Springboks jersey, he bridged that once-insurmountable divide with one perfectly executed fashion statement.

7. Always go down fighting

Even when faced with life imprisonment, the young revolutionary still delivered a firebrand speech at his trial, closing with the remarkable, “During my lifetime I have dedicated my life to this struggle of the African people... It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to see realised. But, my Lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” Not everyone was a fan of this passion, however. Boulton recalls: “I remember Margaret Thatcher telling me he was ‘no better than a terrorist, than the IRA’.”

8. Never pat your own back

Upon being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993, Mandela didn’t start gushing emotionally about his own struggle (which he would have been more than entitled to do); instead he dedicated the award to all the people who fought against apartheid, and vowed to keep battling for “a society which recognises that all people are born equal”.

9. A good leader can – and will – throw shapes

Global Post journalist Andrew Meldrum was present at Mandela’s birthday celebrations in 2010. What follows is his on-dancefloor report: “[Mandela] strides in rhythmic steps and swings his friendly fists, occasionally punching the air with joy. To see the great leader shake the burdens off his shoulders and shake a leg is truly beautiful, a victory of the human spirit. The ‘Madiba shuffle’ has been emulated across South Africa by dancers of all ages and races.” Trust us, that shuffle is well worth YouTubing.

10. Don’t let circumstance break your spirit

Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years in prison doing heavy labour on Robben Island. “Black people with a life sentence in South Africa weren’t going to be treated well,” says Boulton. “The tuberculosis and problems with his lungs were exacerbated by the rock dust from having to break rocks.” But despite ill health, intense grafting and only low-level medical care, he managed to complete a Bachelor of Law degree via correspondence with the University Of London during his incarceration.

(Images: PA/Rex)

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