Our opportunity to work for Nelson Mandela is the most important thing many of us have ever done. He was a transforming leader but also a unique person of such judgment, strong will, and unwavering commitment to justice—not just in South Africa but instinctively.
I spent a good two decades writing and working to defeat an apartheid South Africa – the greatest injustice of our time. So, when I was asked to work for Mandela and the ANC, I threw myself into it body and soul– despite the fact that I was serving as President Bill Clinton’s pollster at the time. They became such comrades in arms too.
I wrote about President Mandela in Dispatches from the War Room – and everyone touched by Madiba has their own special insights.
He was pragmatic, respectful of his opponents, always learning with an earnestness and innocence. You’d find him at home in bed with the massive debate briefing books propped up on his legs, studying. And he would listen – until he decided what was right, and then he would be unwavering and brutal with his opponents. Frank Greer and I tried to get him to be hopeful in the debate with De Klerk and not attack all the time. He totally ignored us and attacked brutally because he thought the security forces were responsible for the ongoing black-on-black violence.
At the close of the debate, he reached out his hand to De Klerk and asked to work together, leading the media conclude this was the handiwork of his American advisors. Back stage, he told us mischievously, “I realized that you were going to be angry with me for being so mean to Mr. de Klerk, so I decided to reach out for his hand.”
At key points when all could have unraveled, he would go around the room, giving everyone a chance to speak, serving everyone tea. He was so courteous and solicitous and humble. But he made judgments at a different level. When the violence in KwaZulu-Natal blocked the ANC and access to the polling places in vast areas of the country, we were scheduled to lodge a protest — and then Madiba said, “tell the comrades to cancel the press conference. We will not do anything to make the election illegitimate.” It was so obvious afterwards.
He never wavered on the principles of a multi-racial South Africa and one-man-one- vote. When I would show him the polls where the ANC was getting well over 60 percent, all he wanted to know was how low the vote of the Pan African Congress was– the black nationalist and black consciousness movement that he struggled to defeat throughout his life. He wanted to smash them: 2 percent was his goal. He was relentless for his unwavering purpose.
After the state dinner with President Clinton in 1994, he saw me and then reached back and grabbed the president by the collar. “Bill, Bill. This man elected me president of South Africa.” And with the disastrous 1994 US elections looming, the president put his big arm around my rather small shoulders and said, “Apparently he did a better job for you than he’s doing for me.”
Being asked to help draft his victory speech in 1994 was humbling at the time. He took ownership of the campaign’s theme, “a better life for all,” and used it on victory night to lecture all those leaders who would soon join a unity government that they were obligated to make life better for all. He reminded them that this was not just about achieving power – and that he would personally hold each of them accountable. What a force.
We honor a man whose humanity in pursuit of justice sets him off from all other leaders.
May he rest in peace.
Stanley B. Greenberg