Nelson Mandela knew when to talk and when to fight

To effect social transformation, fighting is essential, but if we take fighting too far then we risk destroying what we are trying to create.

Adam Kahane
13 December 2013

Credit: All rights reserved.

This past week has been a moving and provocative time to be in my adopted home of South Africa. Nelson Mandela’s death has generated a world-wide outpouring of emotion and analysis. I have been caught up in this outpouring, and have been inspired to reflect on what we can learn from the life of this remarkable man.

I first came to South Africa in 1991, one year after Mandela was freed from his 27 years in prison, to work on the sort of process that has been held up as Mandela’s singular contribution to the unexpectedly-peaceful transition away from apartheid: inclusive, empathetic, constructive dialogue among the parties to a conflict.

I came to facilitate the “Mont Fleur Scenario Exercise,” in which a heterogeneous team of thirty leaders from across South African society worked together to construct different possible narratives on how the transition could occur - politicians, businesspeople, trade unionists, academics, and activists; both black and white, from the opposition and the establishment. This exercise was one of many such dialogues and other formal and informal negotiations that cumulatively produced the transition. Motivated by this experience, I emigrated to South Africa in 1993, and have since led many efforts that have used multi-stakeholder dialogues to address complex social challenges both here and elsewhere.

But many times, including over the last few months, I have had to confront the fact that such dialogue is never, by itself, sufficient. In October, in my native country of Canada, I spent several days with environmental activists who were anguished by their failure to shift what they saw as the catastrophic energy and environmental policies of Canadian governments and corporations. These activists thought that engaging in dialogue with such powerful and misguided opponents would entail unacceptable compromises.

Then in November, in Thailand, I spent a week in dialogue with political, business, and civil society leaders, including both supporters and opponents of the Shinawatra government. I was alarmed when, at the end of my visit, both sides organized mass rallies (in which five people were killed), and anti-government demonstrators pushed their way into government buildings, demanding that the elected parliament be replaced by an appointed council.

In both of these situations, I was meeting with people who saw dialogue as futile. They thought that the best way to move their countries forward was to press their positions harder. Their objective was to force their opponents to capitulate.

I returned home to South Africa at the beginning of December rattled and confused. Then Mandela died. Over the last week, though, in the many stories I have heard about him, I have re-learned something important about what it takes to address these kinds of complex challenges.

Most of the stories being told about Mandela concern his extraordinary efforts as a practitioner of dialogue. But some of them have recalled that he was also a fighter. Before he went into prison, he led illegal marches and other campaigns against the apartheid government, and he was the first commander of the armed wing of the African National Congress. After he was released, both during the negotiations leading up the 1994 elections and then during his presidential term, he often pushed forcefully against opponents from other political parties and from his own to advance his positions. Most people focus on stories about his post-prison efforts at dialogue because they contrast so sharply with his pre-prison fighting, and because they think that such fighting was the normal and expected thing for him to continue to do.

But Mandela knew both how to fight and how to talk. He understood that to effect social transformation, fighting is essential, but that if we take fighting too far then we risk destroying what we are trying to create. During the tough negotiations with the white minority government on how to effect the transition to democracy, he often reminded his ANC colleagues that if they acted aggressively they risked inheriting a ruined country. He understood that talking is also essential, but that if we take dialogue too far then we risk compromising on what is most important to us. He refused to compromise on his paramount goals of democracy, equality, and freedom.

Mandela’s political brilliance, I think, is that he knew not only how but also when to fight and when to talk. He knew that when one of these strategies was at risk of being taken too far, it was time to employ the other, and that they needed to be alternated, again and again. This fluid, rhythmic alternation is like walking, placing your weight first on one foot and then the other. This is how Mandela succeeded in moving forward on his long walk to freedom. All of us who want to effect social transformation must learn to do the same.

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