Mandela on the Campaign Trail

Jenny Warburg

Below is an excerpt from Stanley Greenberg's book, Dispatches from the War Room: In the Trenches with Five Extraordinary Leaders. In one section of the memoir, published in 2009, Greenberg, a Democratic pollster currently at Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, recounts his time parsing data for Nelson Mandela's presidential campaign. 

The first time I met Nelson Mandela was in 1993. I had been invited to give a strategy workshop, with Frank Greer, to 80 African National Congress campaign organizers. As Frank and I mounted a small stage to begin our presentation, Mandela eagerly took his place in the front row. When we finished, Mandela raised his hand to ask the first question: “Mr. Greer and Mr. Greenberg, in your vast experience with modern campaigns and President Clinton, is it better to have a low building with functions spread out across a few big floors or to have a tall building with functions on each of many floors?”

I was taken aback. Clearly Mandela was willing to get deeply into the weeds. And he was determined to lead a modern, effective campaign. Learning how to do a campaign right was part of Mandela’s own personal transition as a leader, and learning so self-consciously and visibly was a way of bringing his party with him. And he exhibited an intense interest in the polling and trying to understand what people were thinking and how to bring them with him on the journey. As part of his own journey (and to the horror of his staff) he suggested that he would oversee the research himself. 

He did become deeply entrenched in the work of the campaign. Mandela decided to observe one of my focus groups in Durban because he was so interested in the campaign but also in what the people were saying and feeling and thinking. He sat behind the one-way window and saw how a group of ordinary ANC supporters from the township talked with such great frustration about the current state of things. It got Mandela’s attention, who always learned from his engagement with people. 

When I first started working on Mandela’s campaign, almost three-quarters of Africans (black South Africans) and two-thirds of whites thought things in the country were going in the wrong direction. To produce a victory that would cement the legitimacy of the ANC in the first democratic elections after centuries of racial oppression and a half century of apartheid, the party needed to generate enthusiasm and near universal participation among Africans and needed to emerge as the only party able to win support across all black groups. 

At that time, the poll numbers for the ANC were modest, with most reporting that the ANC would be hard pressed to garner more than 50 percent of the vote. Certainly the poll numbers were far short of what the ANC needed to dominate a unity government. 

Mandela—entrenched in the data and in the state of the country—embraced significant changes in the campaign not only to try to achieve the kind of victory he needed but also to re-connect with the people, which is what our research was telling us he needed to do. In the past, the ANC’s events were large gatherings, as likely to drive voters away as bring them closer.  Large crowds gathered to listen to Mandela and other leaders who would gather on a high stage and drone on for up to four hours. 

We developed a radically new way for the ANC to relate to its supporters—the People’s Forum—which was a kind of town hall-style event. It allowed people to ask questions and give Mandela their own views. The People’s Forum with Mandela not only addressed the building frustrations, they were leveling and symbolic of a new relationship between the leaders and the people and tilted the balance to the latter. Mandela was energized by these encounters and clearly listened to people and their issues. By the end he had conferred with an estimated 2.5 million people. The forums were wildly popular and Mandela totally embraced this opportunity to connect with the people.

While this was a major turning point in the campaign, Mandela was also fixated on the PAC, the Pan-African Congress, because he was determined to win a victory that would not only put in place a strong unity government but also serve as a blow to the black nationalists, whose politics would interfere with creating the kind of country Mandela believed he needed to create. At that time, PAC was getting one percent of the national vote and 2 percent among Africans in our first polls. Sometimes the vote was too small to be visible at the bottom of our graphs, but that was where Mandela’s eyes focused. We would show him the data and that was all he wanted to know about. 

This was deeply personal for Mandela. While he was nearly always inclusive and forgiving, he was intent on smashing the PAC, reducing it to historical insignificance. So when Mandela asked again about the PAC, my “1 percent” response settled many scores and guarded he thought against a destructive black nationalism that could ruin everything he was battling to create.

Mandela was responsive and smart about the campaign. The ANC’s original campaign slogan, “Now is the time” was backwards-looking—it was more about apartheid than about what Mandela proposed to do for the country. Together, we proposed a new theme, “A better life for all,” which was forward-looking and which encapsulated Mandela’s proposed policy and governance. Mandela accepted that the election must be about the change, the “better life” that achieving power would bring. When the ANC launched its election manifesto and kicked off the campaign, a smiling Nelson Mandela, wearing a dashiki, stood under a huge banner proclaiming, “A Better Life for All.” Mandela told the crowds, “The ANC’s vision of a South Africa in which people can live in peace and with equal opportunities, the ideals which sustained me during my 27 years in prison.” He said, “Democracy means more than just the vote,” he added as a way of explaining the new moment. “It must be measured by the quality of life of ordinary people.” He had totally embraced the new framework for the campaign. And he meant to put power behind it.

Twelve days before the election in 1994, Mandela and de Klerk were scheduled to debate face-to-face on national television. While Mandela trusted his skills, he prepared for the debate the way American presidential hopefuls do—setting up a debate camp complete with set, role players, video feedback, and critique, thick debate books, opposition research, and propos. Mandela joined his advisors for a discussion of the debate strategy. Sick with the flu, he was nonetheless determined and I remember him sitting up in bed under the sheets in a night coat, with the massive debate prep book propped against his knees, studying.

But as studious as he was, he did not always take our advice, especially when he had a bigger moral imperative in mind. The debate book called for Mandela to claim moral standing at the start and put heft behind the “better life for all” theme. The first page also said, “uncontrolled anger and personal attacks on de Klerk loses the debate.” When it came time for the debate, he walked on stage and ripped out de Klerk’s heart because he was convinced that the security forces were responsible for the continuing violence. He was totally on the offensive, hostile and disparaging. Mandela spoke for the ages that night, not for the campaign. Watching Mandela hammer de Klerk stirred me deeply. The man deserved everything Mandela was dishing out. Then Mandela suddenly shifted gears and changed the perception that everyone would have taken away from the debate. After attacking de Klerk one more time he paused for effect: “But we are saying let us work together for reconciliation and nation building,” saying each word ever so slowly. Then he reached out his hand. “I am proud to hold your hand for us to grow solid together. Let us work together to end division and suspicion.” Afterward, Mandela turned to me with a mischievous smile: “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.” 

Mandela gave more than a victory speech, evidence that his mind had already begun to turn to the mandate and his obligation to the “ordinary, humble people” who had voted to “reclaim this country as your own.” In the prepared text, he held out “a hand of friendship to the leaders of all parties … to join us in working together to tackle the problems we face as a nation.” But on stage Mandela added an obligation not in the speech text: “If there are any attempts to undermine the programme, there will be tensions in the government of national unity. Nobody will be allowed to participate in the government of national unity to oppose the programme.” Mandela showed as much passion for the program as for the freedom just won and had already started to educate and cajole his government, not yet formed. 

When Mandela arrived at a conclusion in his own mind, he became brutally single-minded, and in all his public addresses in the week after the election he began lecturing on the character of the mandate. “The people of South Africa have spoken in these elections. They want change,” he reminded those about to assume power. And while still “fully committed to the spirit of a government of national unity,” he warned at the grand parade preceding his inauguration, “we are determined to initiate and bring about the change that our mandate from the people demands. Each year thereafter, South Africa celebrated Freedom Day on April 27, the anniversary of the country’s first free elections. And each year, Mandela spoke with increasing urgency of that election’s mandate. Few public servants take their election promises so seriously. But Mandela was determined to make a better life for all.

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