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What Nelson Mandela Would Have Seen in President Trump

8 minute read

Stengel is the former Editor of TIME, an MSNBC analyst and the author of Information Wars: How We Lost the Global Battle Against Disinformation.

In 2018, the late Nelson Mandela would have turned 100 years old. In honor of his centennial, Penguin Random House is re-issuing my book Mandela’s Way, now with a new introduction, which is excerpted here.

Nelson Mandela was born a century ago and died in 2013. He never owned a smartphone. He never typed a word on a laptop. I’m not even sure he knew what the Internet was. Yet he is the author of the most popular Tweet of all time.

After the violence of right-wing groups in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017, former President Barack Obama posted a series of threaded Tweets that read: ‘“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion…People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love…For love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” — Nelson Mandela.’

The Tweets were liked more than seven-and-a-half million times.

The lines come from the final chapter of Mandela’s autobiography Long Walk to Freedom. They reflect his conclusion, after a lifetime of fighting discrimination and experiencing it first-hand, that prejudice is not innate but learned. The words resonated in part because they offered a profound contrast to the anger and moral equivocation of President Donald Trump, who suggested that both sides — the neo-fascists and those who opposed them — were in the wrong. Mandela knew hate for what it was, but his vision that we can rise above it struck a chord. (And, of course, Barack Obama had something to do with it…)

But the words also reflected the fundamental principles of Mandela’s approach to leadership — principles which seem to be in short supply these days: forgiveness, understanding, empathy. Mandela, more than any other global figure, is known for forgiving his enemies. He never hated the hater; he did not attack the attacker. When his enemies went low, he went high. In the sentence that immediately follows the one Obama quoted, Mandela writes that even in prison he could see “a glimmer of humanity” in his guards. A few paragraphs later, just before the end of the book, he says that he ultimately realized that to free his own people he needed to emancipate those who had imprisoned them. “The oppressor,” he wrote, “must be liberated just as surely as the oppressed.”

Courtesy of Penguin Random House

But such sentiments are increasingly scarce. The Charlottesville gathering of white-supremacists and neo-Nazi groups is a symptom not only of the rise of ethnic-nationalism and authoritarianism in America, but its surge across the globe. Strongmen around the world are deliberately stoking hate and persecution. According to the non-profit Freedom House, last year was the 11th consecutive year of decline of global freedom, meaning more countries retreated from democracy than advanced toward it. Populist and nationalist political forces, Freedom House asserted, made astonishing gains in democratic states while authoritarian nations consolidated power and ratcheted up global aggression.

Indeed, the largest and least-anticipated trend in global politics since the fall of the Berlin Wall has been the rise of non-democratic states and authoritarian rule. When the Wall fell, the scholar Francis Fukiyama famously prophesized “the end of history,” suggesting that in the future there would be no rivals to the ascendancy of liberal democracy. Instead, history has returned with a vengeance. From Russia to Venezuela, from China to Burundi, from Turkey to Hungary, we have seen the return of blood and borders, nationalism and autocracy, tribalism and religious sectarianism. “America First” — with its echoes of pre-war isolationism and anti-Semitism — is evidence of this in our own country. Nationalist forces everywhere are pushing back against immigration and diversity, against anyone who looks different or worships a different God. Democracy is in retreat.

I cannot tell you how troubled Nelson Mandela would be by all of this. Mandela’s vision was of non-racial democracy, the idea that human rights and rule of law could and should triumph over narrow-mindedness and prejudice. Despite all that he suffered — 27 years behind bars — he was a natural optimist who assumed that people were decent until proven otherwise.

This trend toward autocracy represents everything he fought against during his own long life. Mandela saw and experienced ethnic authoritarianism first-hand — it was called apartheid. Apartheid was iron-fisted autocratic rule based on white supremacy and the systematic repression of people of color.

He would have recognized Donald Trump and seen him as a reincarnation of those bumptious apartheid leaders who were ethnic nationalists and only represented those who looked and thought like them. He would certainly have bridled at Trump’s description of Africa as “shithole” countries and seen it as an example of the kind of Western myopia and imperialism he spent a lifetime fighting against. Mandela’s highest praise for a leader was “measured.” I don’t know the right word to describe Donald Trump, but it is the opposite of “measured.”

Mandela would see today’s global nationalism for what it is: a return to a noxious form of tribalism. Tribalism was the animating principle behind grand apartheid which divided South Africa into ten tribal “homelands.” The spurious and deceptive logic of the white oppressors was that black South Africans were violently fractured along tribal and ethnic lines and that the white masters needed to keep them separate to maintain peace (apartheid’s “divide-and-rule” strategy).

Mandela understood tribalism. He was raised by the king of the Thembu tribe. Until the end of his life, he loved and appreciated the Thembu’s tribal traditions. Even as the African National Congress (ANC) sought to move beyond tribalism — a move he supported — Mandela always sought to show respect to tribal leaders. I remember going with him to a remote part of the Transkei to meet with a tribal leader who had once been a rival of his and who greeted Mandela while sitting on a leopard-skin throne. He was sometimes criticized for this kind of deference. But he thought a truly democratic South Africa had to unite not only white and black, but tribal traditionalists and the young urban blacks who rejected them.

While Mandela respected tribal traditions, he also saw their limits. “Divide-and-rule” was a strategy that Mandela always sought to expose. Ultimately, he regarded tribalism as a kind of prison, as a barrier to a democratic and free South Africa, and indeed, to a democratic and free Africa as a whole. During the apartheid years, the ANC aimed to unite all the different tribes of South Africa around the larger struggle for freedom. Mandela and others at the ANC believed that what united black South Africans in their collective freedom struggle was far greater than what divided them. And the modern non-racial South Africa that Mandela created is an embodiment of that idea. To him, the future of his nation was people identifying with the new democratic South Africa above any tribe or region or ethnicity.

The rise of leaders who exploit tribalism and preach ethnic nationalism would have alarmed him. They mirror the old apartheid leaders whom he fought against. One of the hallmarks of this type of authoritarian leader is “double down-ism;” the idea that even in the face of new and contradictory evidence, they will not change their minds for fear it shows weakness. Don’t get me wrong — Mandela could be bull-headed. But often his stubbornness was the last reflex of an old position before he changed to a new one. If there was new data, he would reevaluate. He liked to quote John Maynard Keynes: “When the information changes, I change my mind. What do you do?”

But there was one thing about which he would not compromise: freedom for his people. Everything else was negotiable. He saw autocratic leaders as being the opposite: men with no over-arching principle other than their own survival. The autocrat refuses to compromise — that’s his only value. It was that type of leader who became the model of the African autocrat who refuses to ever cede power. When Mandela voluntarily chose not to run for re-election as president of South Africa, it was a message to autocrats everywhere: strength is not protecting one’s power at all costs but willingly relinquishing it.

For Mandela, projecting strength was not about the closed fist but the open hand. Vengeance was about looking backwards, and one had to let go of one’s grievance or else one was a prisoner of it. Even in his famous 1964 courtroom speech, as he was about to be sentenced to life imprisonment, he said, “During my lifetime, I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination.” He was not simply against the oppression of Africans — he was against oppression, period. In a darkening world, this kind of enlightened and generous leadership is a beacon. The world would be a better, safer, saner place if leaders could only follow Mandela’s Way.

Excerpted from Mandela’s Way. Copyright © 2018 by Richard Stengel. Published by Broadway Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.

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