How Mandela wooed businessmen


Johannesburg -- TODAY, ON the first anniversary of President Nelson Mandela's inauguration, it is generally accepted here that a near miracle has occurred in the past five years.

An important component of this miracle has been the remarkable change in attitude of South African businessmen toward Mr. Mandela.

When he was released from prison in February 1990, many businessmen saw him as the epitome of evil. Today, he is virtually above criticism.

How could such a radical transformation have occurred over such a short period of time?

During the 27 years of his imprisonment, the Nationalist Government portrayed Mr. Mandela as a terrorist aligned with the Communists, dedicated to the overthrow of the state by force.

The government had tried to make him a non-person. It was against the law to reproduce his picture or to quote his words. Had he been released secretly and walked the streets of any South African city, many would have been unable to recognize the most famous political figure in the nation's history.

When he emerged from prison and made his first speech from the Cape Town City Hall, much of what he said, echoing the Freedom Charter of the 1950s, caused ripples of anxiety among businessmen -- the very words, no doubt, that provided comfort and encouragement to a majority of South Africans.

Over the following weeks, whenever Mr. Mandela was quoted in the media, the Johannesburg Stock Exchange oscillated feverishly.

The words "nationalization," "fairness," even "development" sent prices tumbling. Rallies occurred with the words "growth" and "job creation."

A historic meeting occurred in May 1990 between Mr. Mandela, 40 of his African National Congress colleagues and more than 350 businessmen. He pointed out the importance of economic as well as political change, but said that economic growth would not by itself lead to equity and that white domination of the economy must be addressed.

In addition, he defended international economic sanctions as a legitimate form of protest, given South Africa's racially divided society.

The message was sobering, but Mr. Mandela impressed his skeptical audience with his carefully stated views and especially with his obvious willingness to enter into free and healthy dialogue. The fact that Nelson Mandela had survived 10,000 days in jail with no apparent bitterness elicited respect from business leaders who vigorously disputed his political ideas.

In a December 1991 speech, however, Mr. Mandela strongly attacked President F.W. de Klerk. The speech created shock waves and feelings of personal hurt among some businessmen. Many felt he had been too personal in his attack and had gone too far.

It was clear that Mr. Mandela was a political force to be reckoned with. Nevertheless, some of his statements on economic issues were greeted with scorn.

His personal experience in these matters was obviously limited, and his advisers were sometimes ignorant. But he was learning fast, and his contacts in the business community were broadening, which helped to leaven his ideas.

A milestone occurred in April 1993 with the assassination of the important black Communist leader, Chris Hani. This murder provoked a major crisis, threatening the process of national reconciliation.

Mr. De Klerk was hardly visible. Mr. Mandela flew back to Johannesburg from the eastern Cape and took charge. In measured tones, he said all the right things and calmed the nation.

He took pains to point out that it had been a white woman who had noted the license plate of the assassin's car and had led to his arrest. Mr. Mandela's statesmanship at that moment impressed everyone.

Throughout the election campaign a year later, he avoided the constant temptation to make unrealistic promises to the huge, enthusiastic crowds that routinely gathered to hear him.

He called for patience, and from time to time admonished followers for misbehaving at rallies. He also traveled abroad, meeting heads of state, addressing legislators in London and Washington. His stature rose steadily.

In May 1994, at the opening of the new, truly representative parliament and again at his inauguration, Mr. Mandela expressed a desire for reconciliation and a determination to build a strong economy.

His appointments to the Finance Ministry and his choices for governor of the Reserve Bank and the chief of the Defense Force demonstrated a will to maintain continuity under the new government.

In short, Mr. Mandela seemed clearly to have grasped the critical nexus between business confidence, investment, the creation of wealth and having the means to meet the tremendous needs of housing, health, education and many other social problems.

All these developments drew businessmen closer to him. Ideas were invited from the business community. Many were accepted and incorporated into government policies.

The political imperative of creating a fairer society remains a top priority. But the economic imperative for a vibrant and growing economy and the absolute interdependence of the two imperatives have been accepted.

Mr. Mandela's economic team has won respect, and its recent success in floating a major loan on the international markets was applauded.

The process has produced reciprocal benefits. The changed attitudes of both Mr. Mandela and the business community have benefited all South Africans.

Under his leadership, important new patterns and new relationships are being cemented between individuals and institutions. He is shrewd enough to know that the acid test of these new relationships is whether they can be made strong and durable enough to survive him.

The legacy he plainly hopes to leave is a truly new South Africa.

Clive Menell is a South African businessman.

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