Nelson Mandela and the politics of moral capital

Rodney Tiffen, The University of Sydney

John Kane, The Politics of Moral Capital, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne, 2001 (288 pp). ISBN 0-52166-357-1 (paperback) RRP $49.95.

President F. W. de Klerk stunned South Africa and the world on 2 February 1990, when in his first parliamentary speech after assuming the presidency from the old crocodile, P. W. Botha, he announced that he was unbanning the African National Congress (ANC), the Pan African Congress (PAC) and the South African Communist Party (SACP). As a climax, de Klerk announced the freeing of Nelson Mandela.

The logistics surrounding Mandela’s release were chaotic, but the power of the symbolism shone through. Finally he addressed riotous and triumphant crowds who had taken over the centre of Cape Town, in scenes televised around the world. Although what he said was far less important than that he spoke freely as a free man to thousands of black supporters, this was not one of Mandela’s greatest speeches.

The speech did not have the high moral authority of the closing address he had given to the court in Johannesburg 27 years earlier. Then he talked about his dedication to the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. Against the advice of his sympathetic white lawyers who feared it would provoke the judges to sentence him to death, he concluded that it was an ideal he hoped to live for and achieve, ‘but if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die’.

In 1990, Mandela gave a more prosaic speech, in which, among other things, he described himself as a loyal and disciplined member of the ANC. The tone of the speech was dictated by his need to reassure ANC members, who feared that he might unilaterally make concessions on their key demands (as the government had been fruitlessly seeking for many years).

The situation encapsulated what John Kane means by the opportunities and difficulties of the politics of moral capital. The plight of Mandela had come to symbolise the injustices of the apartheid system. The ANC (or rather elements of it) had as a political strategy decided to further promote this personalisation. Mandela, because of his individual moral qualities, had become central to any possibility of breaking the historic deadlock. This gave him a political latitude which the ANC (or rather other elements of it) were now wary of.

Kane argues that moral judgement is intrinsic to politics, and provides a fresh perspective on the force of moral claims in establishing the authority of leaders. ‘Moral capital is moral prestige—whether of an individual, organisation or a cause—in useful service’ (p. 7). However the good does not necessarily prevail. Moral capital must be deployed strategically in combination with other political resources if it is to change the political outcome.

The middle of Kane’s book consists of thematically focussed case studies of political leaders who used their moral capital to advance larger political causes. Two are of leaders in times of crisis: Abraham Lincoln and Charles de Gaulle. Two are of dissident leaders against authoritarian regimes: Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi. The final third of the book concentrates on the problematic moral capital of American presidents after Kennedy. Kane argues that America’s central political myth was of the essential and compatible union of American power and virtue, but that a deep fissure has increasingly opened between them. Indeed the depth of Kane’s research, and his feel and insights are at their best in his analyses of American political leaders, although the probing of what are never consensual public perceptions of the morality of various American administrations must always involve contested judgements.

Analysis of the moral capital of political leaders has some interest in times of normalcy when institutions are strong and stable. It is even more pertinent and compelling in times of crisis and transition.

In few historical transformations has the moral stature of one individual been so pivotal.

There have been few major historical transformations in which one individual was so pivotal, and where his role rested so centrally on his moral stature, as Nelson Mandela and the end of apartheid in South Africa. The transition in South Africa—from one of the world’s most brutal regimes, based on its repugnant racialist ideology, to democratic rule under a black majority government, with a relative minimum of white versus black violence—is one of the miracles of contemporary politics. The most central figure emerged from 27 years of often brutal imprisonment not only with his integrity intact and his dedication to democracy and racial equality undimmed, but more astonishingly with a generosity of spirit and an agility of mind that made the process of transition possible.

One dubious aspect of Kane’s account is his view that ‘the mantle of moral greatness fell somewhat serendipitously on the shoulders of Nelson Mandela’ (p. 134). He continues ‘The most interesting thing about Mandela’s “mythification”, however, was that it was as much a product of adventitious historical circumstances as of his own qualities’ (p. 119). Although nothing in Mandela’s achievements before his imprisonment made it inevitable that he would come to symbolise so powerfully the morality of the struggle, neither was it as accidental as Kane implies.

When Mandela arrived in Johannesburg in the 1940s, the ANC was rather somnolent. Founded in 1912 to promote racial equality, its elders had become content to prod the government in a gentlemanly way, still committed to their core principles, but infinitely patient in their pursuit. With Walter Sisulu and Oliver Tambo, who were to become lifelong friends and comrades, Mandela revitalised the ANC’s youth wing, and eventually the whole ANC.

This was an era of increasing, although ineffective, black activism, because it was the years during which the edifice of the apartheid state was constructed. Since the National Party had secured victory in the 1947 election, they had strengthened their gerrymander within the whites-only electorate. Then through a series of measures they reinforced legal and social divisions between the races, reversing the right for racial inter-marriage, removing the small avenues of educational opportunities blacks had obtained, and forcibly removing them from the suburbs of major cities in the name of separate development.

Mandela and his comrades were very active, inspired also by the coming of independence in much of black Africa. Mandela and Tambo had formed the first black legal firm, and were constantly busy, although obviously not all their clients could pay. But they were frequently subject to harassment, bannings, and legal prosecutions because of their political activities.

Indeed the regime was becoming ever more repressive. Around 1960 came a series of clashes, most infamously the Sharpeville massacre in 1960, when police killed 67 marchers. The attempt by Mandela and others to organise a general strike was squashed with considerable violence. In the face of state violence and the closing off of all legal avenues of redress, the mood was becoming increasingly militant.

At this stage—as Kane notes, but without detailing the preceding provocations—Mandela decided that the only way to meet violence was with violence, and endorsed the formation of the armed wing of the ANC, Umkhonto we Siswe (Spear of the Nation, or MK). This was more a foolish gesture of bravado in the face of intensely felt frustration than a realistic strategy. It never had much time to be implemented under Mandela, because he and most of his comrades were arrested soon after.

Mandela and the others faced the prospect of execution with calm defiance.

Mandela and Tambo had decided that if the ANC were banned, then Mandela would continue to struggle in South Africa, while Tambo would lead the effort from abroad. They put this into operation, and for the next few decades Tambo headed the ANC-in-exile. Mandela was again due to be arrested for his role in organising the strike, but for several months he evaded the police, while speaking to rallies and meetings, and gaining a reputation as the ‘black pimpernel’.

Later, at the treason trial, Mandela and the others faced the prospect of execution with calm defiance. They then spent the next 27 years in prison, mostly on Robben Island, now a museum where visitors can stand in Mandela’s cell, walk through the quarries where the prisoners laboured, and look at Table Mountain, enticingly near but fatally far across the water.

By the early 1980s Mandela had become such an internationally famous symbol that the regime started to fear the consequences if anything happened to him. When he contracted TB, he received the best of medical attention. Later transferred to a prison on the mainland, Mandela negotiated with intermediaries and visiting dignitaries, including Malcolm Fraser. (‘Tell me Fraser. Is Don Bradman still alive?’ was his first question.)

It is important to remember that when Mandela was imprisoned, the ANC, PAC, and SACP were all banned. Membership was a legally punishable offence, and organisation became dispersed and difficult. Front organisations were formed, and affiliations often had to remain clandestine.

However, of course resistance to apartheid did not end. Through the 1960s and 1970s, the regime felt increasingly confident, as mineral exports brought rising prosperity. But their domestic politics showed no signs of liberalising. In 1976 came the uprisings in Soweto, ushering in a new period of unrest, largely under the inspiration of the Black Consciousness movement. The leader who became best-known internationally was Steve Biko, bashed to death in a police station in 1977.

In the 1980s, increasing civil disobedience in the townships and campaigns by black trade unions, as well as international pressure, led President Botha to declare a state of emergency. But there was increasing recognition, even in the National Party government, that the tide of history was against them. Few could see how to move forward, however. The spectre of a huge and violent white against black conflict hung over the country.

When de Klerk took the bold step that Botha always shrank from, he probably did not know the dimensions of the genie he was unleashing. The shape of the black opposition he faced was probably not clear to him, and there was a residual confidence in the National Party that they could, if not resist, then out-manoeuvre their inexperienced and potentially divided opponents.

At the time, the broad anti-apartheid movement consisted of many disparate groups. Veterans like Mandela were revered for their courage and sacrifice, but had been removed from the frontlines of direct struggle for a quarter of a century. Another group of the ANC had been in exile, with headquarters in London and Lusaka, under the leadership of Tambo, and of current South African President Thabo Mbeki. But the exiles were spread throughout the world, often isolated and homesick.

The National Party’s best hope lay in making alliances with those whose anti-apartheid commitment was more in doubt.

Meanwhile in South Africa, protest groups formed in response to local grievances, some becoming nationally organised, even forming into grander alliances such as the United Democratic Front, and later the Mass Democratic Movement. The best organised were the black trade unions, COSATU, led skilfully by Cyril Ramaphosa, which had accumulated great experience in the use of confrontation to negotiate particular demands—and all the while seeking to advance the larger struggle.

Probably the most miserable were those who had joined the military movement, the MK. They had been training in the jungles, often attacked by the South African military, and increasingly subject to internal divisions. Paranoia about infiltrators led to cases of torture and unjust accusations of treason. The ANC’s endorsement of the military strategy caused it to lose considerable international support in the West. But the truth—that neither the old or new regimes for contrasting reasons want to acknowledge—is that the MK was largely irrelevant to the anti-apartheid struggle—in contrast to the civil struggles inside the country.

The National Party’s best hope lay in making alliances with those whose anti-apartheid commitment was more in doubt. By far the most important was Chief Buthelezi and his Inkatha movement, which had great support among Zulus, especially in rural areas. The already bloody conflicts between Inkatha and the ANC—fanned by support for Inkatha from the clandestine ‘Third Force’ of the South African security forces—intensified in the next few years into a civil war, with over 10,000 fatalities. Buthelezi agreed to take part only ten days before the 1994 election, his intransigence and the violence of his supporters causing crises through most of the election campaign.

Despite this array of separate and potentially conflicting groups, over the next four years, the ANC achieved all that it wanted, and the National Party was eventually consigned to opposition and virtual irrelevance.

Kane argues that when he was released, Mandela suffered ‘something of a moral deficit’ within his own party (p. 120), and that the attitude of younger black activists was one of contempt towards their elders, and their legacy of political quietism and racial subjection (p. 127). However, more remarkable than the suspicions of some in 1990 that Mandela might cut unilateral deals is how quickly the opposition coalesced under the leadership of the ANC and then how cohesive the groups with their varied experiences became.

Moreover Mandela’s leadership was quickly acknowledged and cemented. ‘Many of his supporters had dreaded a let-down: the poster-hero commemorated round the world could turn out to be a frail, bewildered old man. But he did not seem trapped in the past. He soon became, as Nadine Gordimer put it, the “personification of the future”’ (Sampson 1999, p. 411).

As Kane observes there were tensions at the ANC national conference in 1991. There were differences based upon generations, the contrasting experiences of different groups’ struggles, and their established personal allegiances. There was a feeling among those who had remained in the country that the exiles were assuming an authority that did not recognise those who had been at the forefront of the struggle. This was reflected in the defeat of Thabo Mbeki for the position of deputy president. The conference also imposed on Mandela their preference for Ramaphosa as chief negotiator. This proved a wise decision—Ramaphosa and Mandela established close, trusting relations, and Ramaphosa was the most skilful of negotiators through a turbulent period.

Many brief accounts of South Africa’s relatively peaceful transition from apartheid to democracy jump quickly from de Klerk’s announcement of February 1990 to Mandela’s election as president in April 1994. In fact it was a fascinating, uncertain, tortured period, punctuated by deadlocks and crises. There were constant tensions between ANC impatience and National Party intransigence, and a rhythm of inaction followed by some crisis that drove the process forward again.

Kane re-asserts the moral dimensions of relations between political leaders and their constituencies.

After de Klerk’s announcement, the government had no immediate plans of follow-up. It was under pressure from conservatives within the white community, and internally divided. Each time it felt itself stronger—as for example after winning the referendum among the white electorate that endorsed its approach in March 1992—it lapsed into inaction, until some external pressure forced it to move again.

The constitutional convention did not begin until late 1991. After the second session bogged down in mid 1992, as Kane points out, the more militant sections of the ANC pressed for more mass actions. Tens of thousands of marchers went to Ciskei, one of the four ‘independent’ homelands governments that had been established under the pretence of separate development. However the troops under the command of the conservative government panicked and 28 marchers were killed. This tragic dramatisation of the potential costs of mass action put the ANC priority again on negotiations.

The crisis which finally propelled a constitutional settlement was the assassination of the charismatic young leader Chris Hani. Hani, at first in 1990 wanted to escalate the militant and violent struggle strategies, but was won over by Mandela, and played a vital role in securing consent among the militants for the negotiation path. At the time of his death, a year before the first democratic elections were eventually held, Hani’s popularity among blacks was probably second only to Mandela’s.

Bloody riots could easily have broken out all over the country. The government was powerless to keep the peace. Mandela, in a powerful televised address, was the pivotal person who calmed the situation. He argued that the murder was the work of extremists, not of white people as such, one of whom had come to Hani’s aid, and urged blacks not to endanger the cause Hani had died for. It showed that morally at least, the transfer of power had already occurred.

Kane’s book is a welcome attempt to re-assert the moral dimensions of relations between political leaders and their constituencies. His case studies throw interesting light on what is an often neglected aspect of political analysis—the political latitude some leaders gain through their moral stature to reshape institutions and take policy initiatives that generate new possibilities in times of transition and institutional fluidity. The most compelling example is Nelson Mandela and the end of apartheid.


Sampson, A. 1999, Mandela. The Authorised Biography, HarperCollins, London.

Rodney Tiffen is Associate Professor in Government and International Relations at The University of Sydney. He acted as an observer of South Africa’s media during that country’s first democratic election in 1994. His most recent book is Diplomatic Deceits. Government, Media and East Timor.

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