He couldn’t keep a jailer: Why Nelson Mandela was a great leader

Much has been said about Nelson Mandela over the past day.  But one thing I haven’t heard anyone speak of on the news channels—because, really, it’s pretty small potatoes when compared with this man’s towering greatness in so many areas—is the trouble Nelson Mandela’s prison had keeping guards who would treat him like a prisoner.

Here’s an excerpt from the History Channel’s biography of Mandela (the odd wording appears to be the result of an editing error, but the passage is copied verbatim):

During his incarceration Mandela taught himself to speak Afrikaans and learned about Afrikaner history. He was able to converse with his guards in their own language, using his charm and intelligence to reason with them and try to understand the way they thought. This caused the authorities to replace the guards around regularly Mandela as it was felt that they could were becoming too lenient in their treatment of their famous prisoner.

Two things strike me as particularly significant here.  First, Mandela taught himself to speak Afrikaans. The commitment it takes to do something like that is tremendous.  Mandela had many attributes that contributed to his greatness: his charm, his intelligence, and his kind, respectful treatment of others.

But, second, it was his newfound ability speak his captors’ language that made it possible for him to create friends of enemies.  Not just once or twice, but systematically . . . to the point that his jailers had to be “regularly” replaced.

The world could be such a better place it we tried, in our own small ways, to emulate Nelson Mandela’s example.

About Katherine Wikoff

I am a college professor at Milwaukee School of Engineering, where I teach literature, film studies, political science, and communication. My blog is a space for playing with ideas about creativity, innovation, lifelong learning, and the nature of "insight."
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