Yearly Focus

Nelson Mandela – Exemplar Review

This year I picked Nelson Mandela as my exemplar. Today would be Mandela’s 101st birthday (he passed away in 2013) and is internationally recognized as Nelson Mandela day, so I decided it would be an appropriate day to publish my exemplar review. Each year I follow a review template to help me get the most out of the process of having an exemplar. Below is my entry for Nelson Mandela.

What did Nelson Mandela achieve?

Nelson Mandela was a Nobel Peace Prize winner, the first black president of South Africa and a leader in the movement to transition that country to a true democracy where all people had a vote, regardless of race. He was a lawyer, a revolutionary, the leader of a terrorist organization and a political prisoner for nearly 30 years. His life was just about singularly devoted to ensuring people of all races had equal freedoms in South Africa.

Why did he care about that?

As a black African, Mandela had first hand experience and was witness to the injustice that non-whites forced upon those of other races in South Africa. He believed this was unjust and wanted a day when he, his family, his neighbors and his people would be treated as equals in their own land.

In his biography he wrote, “There was no particular day on which I said, From henceforth I will devote myself to the liberation of my people; instead, I simply found myself doing so, and could not do otherwise.”

How did he think about the world differently than his contemporaries?

I will break this into two categories – his differences from those in power before him and his differences from other freedom fighters of his era.

Mandela saw the world differently than the people in power in most of the world during his life. The world was largely under the control of a white minority of European decent after centuries of colonization, bloodshed & enslavement. While black Africans were not bonded in slavery during Mandela’s life, their standing was nowhere near equal, largely as a result of having no influence in the governing process. Mandela was a proponent of one vote per person and of not treating people differently because of the color of their skin.

That final point is particularly important. While there were many freedom fighters in the 20th century (Ghandi, Martin Luther King Jr., Robert Mugabe, Mengistu Haile Mariam, etc.), for some they eventually become the oppressors they once fought. Mandela had a long history of seeking to work with other races in South Africa and was adamant that the white minority shouldn’t be mistreated if and when the black majority gained power. This is a view that seems somewhat unique on the continent of Africa but Mandela and the ANC defended it .

What are a few of Mandela’s behaviors that helped him?

Three things that stood out to me were his willingness to dive into messy debates and stay in them as long as they took. On one occasion in his autobiography he described disagreeing with a friend and staying up all night debating until they agreed. He seemed to have a knack for recognizing when debate could prevail and would push until the other party was exhausted and conceded. On some occasions though he writes about giving into a group consensus, so it appears he either failed to mention the long debate or he somewhat quickly read that debate would not win. This habit of long debate proved beneficial when he would later negotiate the terms of the first free election with the sitting government, a process that took about seven years.

Another behavior that stands out to me about Mandela is the way he always functioned as part of a group. From his college age he made decisions with others. Perhaps this is a cultural difference between my 21st century American individualism and a 20th century African way of doing things, but I appreciated seeing how it played out. It seemed that every year or two he was forming a committee or chapter or group of some form. Even in prison he organized an election for leaders to speak for the cell block. In his autobiography I was impressed with how many names he mentioned (as a side note, apparently his ‘autobiography’ was written by a ghostwriter with the help of a committee of his colleagues, so perhaps that is why so many names were included) They say if you want to go far you need to go with others and Mandela’s life proves that.

Finally, I was impressed by his dedication to physical and mental health. As a lawyer he attended a boxing gym to get some physical exertion in, in prison he would run in place and do pushups, later he would play tennis and garden. Despite being quite busy, he found time to take care of his body.

What are some of the decisions he made that contributed to his success?

One of the first decisions Mandela made that had a huge impact on his life was to move from his homeland in the country to the city of Johannesburg, where he became a lawyer. It is hard to imagine he would have had the connections and influence he did in a remote village. The time he spent working in law ended up being extremely beneficial as he spent the majority of his life involved in legal action against the country. His autobiography gives little glimpses of how his confidence and knowledge of the law went a long way to set him apart as a leader. He had the courage to stand up to workers at the prison and to protest all the way to the government – while he wasn’t fully effective, it is clear his repeated efforts had more impact than doing nothing would have.

The group of people he chose to associate himself with ended up being an influential and eventually powerful group. It is hard to say whether Mandela sought them out, whether they ended up powerful because they stayed close to him or whether like just attracts like. Folks like Walter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo, Desmond Tutu, Chief Albert Lutuli who were leaders in the fight against Apartheid.

What isn’t apparent to me, from reading Mandela’s biography, is how Mandela went from being a man to a saint. It seems that this was by design and that the pivotal point was when he chose to live underground and start the militia. As a result of that perhaps, and his way with words, he became elevated as a figurehead for the political movement. This gave him a platform to speak on that few others had. Any ways in which he nurtured this image of himself certainly helped. It gave him a chance to share messages with his people & the world, the former it energized, the latter it motivated to put economic pressure on South Africa to resolve the conflict.

What was one thing about the Nelson Mandela’s life journey that is encouraging to me?

The reason I originally picked Nelson Mandela as an exemplar this year is his ~30 years in imprisonment and rise to power after that. At the time I thought of those as 30 wasted years, but I have learned that they were anything but.

During those years two very important things happened. First, he became a living martyr. Second, he became a well connected leader in the revolutionary movement because all of the other leaders were also getting imprisoned. That second point hadn’t occurred to me at first but Mandela talked about it frequently in his book. Even early in his activist days, when a group would get thrown in jail for a single night, he described how that was the best time to spend time with the other revolutionaries because no one had anything else to do.

What I instead found encouraging was the amount of impact he was able to have in his life despite few lucky breaks and plenty of unlucky ones. This isn’t a case of a man buying a lottery ticket and becoming a millionaire by chance. This is a case of a man working hard at one thing for nearly all of his 95 years slowly but surely making progress. Each step seemed to feed into the next and in the end the impact was due to each of them.

What is one thing about Mandela’s life that makes me feel like I should do more with mine?

There are plenty of rags to riches stories, especially in America, of someone starting out with little and accomplishing much. Mandela’s story is one of not only having little, but of also not really having the chance to have anything. It is one thing to live in a place that lets you own a business and then to make money off of that business. It seems an entirely different thing to live in a place where your rights are severely limited and the system is setup to prevent your economic mobility. To then accomplish anything in amazing.

This stands in stark contrast to my current lot in life. While Mandela was digging out of a hole, I’m standing on one of the greatest platforms the world has ever known. That is worth consideration of what that means for what I can accomplish.

What did Mandela believe about the world that I have already reflected on?

Mandela’s belief that all people deserve to be treated the same regardless of the color of their skin is one I reflected on as I read his biography.

The thought chain I had was about a trend I’ve noticed in the evolution of racism and civil rights. My thinking on this is immature and the topic deserves volumes but a pattern I’ve noticed is what appears to be progress in dramatic steps.

Slavery was abolished in South Africa and the United States in the 1800’s but into the mid 1900s racism and segregation were rampant. While black people were no longer slaves, they were free people, they really weren’t economically free. They couldn’t vote or have much influence on their position and that left them with worse educations, living situations, etc.

In the United States where black people made up between 10-20% of the population at various points, it seems possible to imagine that some of that inequality stems from that group not being the majority. Perhaps things would be the other way if the numbers were reversed. Learning about South Africa where the black population made up 70-80% of the population and a white minority of ~10% controlled all of the power disproves that thought experiment. It is hard for me to even imagine what that is like to live in a place where recent immigrants of such few numbers are in power in that way.

The next step in the evolution of equality for black people seemed to be the story of the 1900’s for many countries. The civil rights movement in the United States, the liberation of many African nations, and eventually, a bit later, South Africa in the 1990’s.

We now seem to be in a third wave. Black people are not slaves in South Africa or the United States. They can vote. Both countries have had black presidents. But we have not yet reached a place where people are judged without concern for the color of their skin.

The thing I have a hard time with is understanding what the next concrete step towards progress is. Ending slavery was a very clear big step in the right direction – deciding that humans are not property. Giving people the right to vote is another huge step as voting gives people the power to be represented by the power structure. But what is the next step?

Which of his motivations have I reflected most on?

The thing that stands out to me the most is how singular his motivation was throughout his life. With most of the other exemplars I’ve studied, they have had threads that were consistent, but their life presented chapters that were fairly different.

Perhaps part of the reason for Mandela’s singular focus was the scope of it and fact that it took his whole life to accomplish it. In an alternate reality where black people were able to vote in South Africa in the 1960’s, perhaps he would have had a second chapter where another topic became his focus.

What is one of his behaviors that I would like to try out this year?

Mandela’s willingness to debate to, it appears, no end, is really interesting to me. I have the propensity to do that but have more or less been trained not to do it by years of poor results. Perhaps the context of his time and country are different enough from mine that this behavior isn’t transferrable, but perhaps some of it is.

I’ve lately learned that often winning a debate is best accomplished by spending less time debating and more time waiting. I’ve started to see instances where setting up the context and then resurfacing the convo periodically will eventually produce the desired result. My current employer contacted me every six months for over three years offering me a job before I finally took one. Spending those dozen hours trying to debate me on the first day wouldn’t have produced the same results but spreading them out ended up working.

In the same way, Mandela spent years talking to the government before an agreement was finally made. At most points during that, things looked less than hopeful. He describes it as two steps forward, one step back. But eventually enough steps were taken.

This is a practice I would like to try this year. To remain engaged in the debate but to be patient and let time have its effect. I am not naturally very patient but I’ve found the bigger the impact of a decision and the more people involved, the longer it takes. So learning this behavior will prove necessary if I want to continue increasing the scope of my impact.

What decision making heuristics can I adopt from Mandela’s experience?

From what I can tell, Mandela did not operate by a long term roadmap. He had a north star, one person one vote in South Africa. Everything from there seems to be a matter of continually pushing as hard as he could for the next closest goal in that direction.

At one point in his life it would be fair to say that the majority of his energy went into figuring out how to get access to long pants. In prison the black prisoners were only allowed to wear shorts. While this certainly doesn’t seem like the most important next step towards building a democracy, there is a certain beauty to it. Moving towards a democracy really wasn’t achievable right then – getting pants actually was. It was actionable and it was something to fight for. Once he had that he asked for permission to study books, then to write letters, then to have visitors, and then before you know it he was asking to negotiate with the president.

Not all people are fortunate enough to find their north star as early as Mandela was. But the idea of continually fighting and making sure you are fighting for things that are the next hardest achievable goal seems really transferable.

What are some of his failures I can avoid repeating?

In his autobiography Mandela writes,  “had I made the right choice in putting the people’s welfare even before that of my own family?” and later “when your life is the struggle, as mine was, there is little room left for family.”

While it is hard to blame a man imprisoned against his will for being an absent father, it seems fairly obvious that was the norm even before that happened. He willingly chose to go underground and start the work to organize the ANC, coordinate strikes and eventually acts of sabotage. Even before then, as a lawyer and young father, he went from work to political meetings to late night events. It is clear his heart wasn’t at home and that caused a lot of pain for those closest to him.

One other failure it is worth reflecting on is Mandela’s run of violence before he ultimately became known for being a messenger of peace. In some ways the story of that conversion plays out nicely – but there is a lingering question of whether that was a mistake or a necessary action at the time. Was Mandela only able to be peaceful later because others were violent? Would he have had the chance to negotiate if it weren’t for the violence he helped start? It is interesting to contrast Mandela’s story to that of other revolutionaries, some of whom were always peaceful and others who were always violent.

What other cool facts did I learn about Nelson Mandela?

One thing that confused me until I did some research was Mandela’s references to “coloureds”. He often described how the white minority was mistreating black Africans, Indians and Coloureds. In the United States where I grew up, the term colored person is an antiquated term used to describe black people, often associated with the Jim Crow era of segregation in the South. To read Mandela write that confused me greatly until I found out more about the use in South Africa to describe those of mixed races (more info in this Wikipedia article). I get the impression that coloured people were often treated negatively by the black and white communities. A different ANC leader might have steered the country to a place where they were mistreated even after a black president was in power. That is really the heart of the greatness of Mandela’s legacy, he is rightfully loved by those from all races for working to end a cycle of oppression that still continues in many places.