I'm reading obituaries of the great man, Nelson Mandela, who accomplished a transition to democracy in a divided and fraught South Africa. And I am reflecting on what I know of his life and how that experience has flowed through my own life: the anger at the horrendous system of apartheid; the frustration with conservative American apologists for apartheid; the hope at a 1987 Hugh Masekela concert when he sang "Mandela (Bring Him Back Home)"; the exhilaration at the1994 inauguration. Rarely in political history do we find as clear a sense of positive achievement as we do in the career of Mandela.
As a political leader, and a pragmatist, he was a complex man. His strategic vision of a multi-racial, democratic, constitutionally ordered South Africa required, at times, shifting tactics. He made mistakes, as we all do. But his world historical effect in realizing democratic transition is, ultimately, extraordinary.
Much has been written about Mandela, and much more will now come in retrospection, but here is something I noticed today: an echo of the Daodejing in his leadership style. Consider these lines from the NYT obituary:
In his autobiography, Mr. Mandela recalled eavesdropping on the endless consensus-seeking deliberations of the tribal council and noticing that the chief worked “like a shepherd.”
“He stays behind the flock,” he continued, “letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind.”
That would often be his own style as leader and president.
And now these lines from Daodejing 66 (Hinton translation):
So, wanting to rule over the people a sage speaks from below them, and wanting to lead the people he follows along behind them,
then he can reign above without weighing the people down and stay ahead without leading the people to ruin.
He didn't do this literally all the time. Perhaps his most notable achievement - negotiating while in prison for his release and the beginnings of a democratic transition - was done, initially, without consulting his closest ANC allies. He got out in front of them to lay the ground work for a process that required compromises they were likely to reject out of hand. But as that process unfolded, after he was out of prison and working on the creation of a new constitution, he had to let the situation develop, see where certain people and political forces were headed, so that he could, in the end, guide them from behind and bring them to democracy without "leading the people to ruin."
Another aspect of his political life has a Daoist resonance: at the end of his five-year term as President, he yielded power. In doing so, he avoided repeating a common mistake of many others who have held on too long to power. He understood that only by letting go, by not doing (wuwei), would it be possible for democracy to develop. South Africa is not a perfect place politically. But I suspect it is much better off now as a result of Mandela's exemplary leadership, including relinquishment of power.
It could be argued that Mandela is far from a Daoist because he was so canny a strategist. He did not just let things happen; rather, he worked hard to move events toward his preferred outcome. In that way, he had a bit of Sunzi in him, as in this calculation:
Mr. Mandela seated his visitors [other ANC leaders] at a table and patiently explained his view that the enemy was morally and politically defeated, with nothing left but the army, the country ungovernable. His strategy, he said, was to give the white rulers every chance to retreat in an orderly way. He was preparing to meet Mr. de Klerk, who had just taken over from Mr. Botha.
As Sunzi (Griffith, 7.30-7.32) says:
Do not thwart an enemy returning homewards.
To a surrounded enemy you must leave a way of escape.
Do not press an enem at bay.
This is a remarkable insight, given Mandela's historical context. It would have been easy to rush unrestrained toward the complete destruction of the white power structure that had repressed him and so many others. But he was looking beyond immediate victory toward the creation of something larger and more lasting. He might be criticized for allowing the oppressers to retain signficant portions of their power, especially their economc power, but he understood that in doing so political power could be secured for the majority in a relatively peaceful manner.
And maybe he intuitively understood this line from Sunzi (I don't know if he directly studied the text):
Now an army may be likened to water, for just as flowing water avoids the heights and hastens to the lowlands, so an army avoids strengths and strikes weaknesses.
And as water shapes its flow in accordance with the ground, so an army manages its victory in accordance with the situation of the enemy.
And as water has no constant form, there are in war no constant conditions.
Mandela adapted himself and his strategy to the circumstances that surrounded him and thus found a way through to the outcome he wanted most: constitutional democracy. And that sense of water-like adaptabilty to circumstance and sensitivity to context is something that Sunzi shares with Daoism.
I don't want to make too much of the Daoist themes here. Mandela was obviously more than that. So, we'll give him the last word:
During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.