Mandela's lessons for our polarized Congress

I wondered, as the most recent congressional political convulsions came to a close, what lessons the leaders of our polarized political parties might learn from the example of Nelson Mandela. He did not succumb to pure partisanship as he led South Africa from the violence and repression of Apartheid to a multicultural functioning democracy. When Mr. Mandela was released from prison in 1990, South Africa's racial and political divisions were in many ways sharper than the economic divide that tore our Congress apart. Mr. Mandela negotiated his path to South Africa's presidency and his nation toward national reconciliation by doing something which appears unthinkable to leaders today: taking into account the interests and feelings of the other party while seeking to achieve his own objectives.

President F.W. De Klerk, who had ordered President Mandela's release from prison, engaged in discussions with him for almost four years on the future of the South African government until the adoption of a new constitution in 1994. Mr. De Klerk and his National Party were fearful of the inevitable — relinquishing control of the government to Mr. Mandela and his African National Congress Party (ANC). Impressively, during these talks Mr. Mandela did more than merely assert the will of the black majority, which was largely represented by the ANC. He also recognized the need to be mindful of the interests of Mr. De Klerk and the white minority. Mr. Mandela saw meaningful bridge-building as attainable "only if both parties [were] willing to compromise." Thus, during these negotiations, Mr. Mandela was mindful of the interests of Mr. De Klerk and the white minority.

Mr. Mandela's approach allowed him to narrow the gap between the black majority and the white minority. After the new constitution was adopted, he supported the formation of the Government of National Unity (GNU), a multi-racial and multi-party government. The GNU entitled parties with parliamentary minorities to proportional representation in the cabinet, provided they captured at least 5 percent of the vote for National Assembly seats. Reflecting later on this approach, Mr. Mandela remarked: "You mustn't compromise your principles, but you mustn't humiliate the opposition. No one is more dangerous than one who is humiliated."

The partial U.S. government shutdown and debt-ceiling brinkmanship illustrate this point. Congress was at an impasse. Neither Democrats nor Republicans were willing to make any concessions, and an agreement was reached only when disaster was imminent. The standoff caused significant economic and political damage. Moreover, the agreement is only a temporary solution. A similar crisis may occur as soon as January or February. Hopefully, U.S. politicians in the meantime might examine Mr. Mandela's bold win-win approach to bridging divides.

The power of Mr. Mandela's approach became most apparent as he guided the nation toward the creation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1995. During this period, there were polarized views regarding the treatment of those who participated in human rights violations during the Apartheid era. At one extreme were Mr. De Klerk and his National Party followers. They sought complete forgiveness of those responsible for Apartheid spawned violence. In contrast, some black parties demanded Nuremberg trial-like accountability for their former oppressors — no amnesty for violence and human rights abuses committed during the period of Apartheid.

Mr. Mandela chose a different path. He understood the need to account for what took place during Apartheid and would not accept Mr. De Klerk's call for general amnesty. Mr. Mandela's authorized biographer, Anthony Sampson, describes Mr. Mandela's support of a kind of "specific" amnesty which was conditioned on perpetrators revealing the truth and proving that their actions were "politically motivated." Additionally, the commission's framework gave the victims of Apartheid violence and human rights violations a platform to describe the horrors they experienced, as well as an opportunity to receive reparations. The unity government, with its cabinet coalition, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission framework for dealing with the abuses of Apartheid, demonstrated Mr. Mandela's ability to walk the South African tightrope of black African majority rule while still accommodating white Afrikaner interests.

So from the halls of government to the administration of justice in dealing with approaches to human rights abuses, Nelson Mandela recognized the power of reconciliation as a building block in the foundation of a new South Africa. He did so without ignoring the most vital interests of black South Africans, but also without completely trampling the needs of whites. And while South Africa is not trouble free today, Mr. Mandela's approach to reconciling the different points of view of his countrymen is an example for others to weigh. Perhaps by studying it, U.S. politicians will stop practicing the stifling politics of polarization.

Ronald M. Shapiro is chairman of Baltimore's Shapiro Negotiations Institute and is counsel to the firm Shaprio, Sher, Guinot & Sandler. His email is

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