I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.

(From the Victorian poem “Invictus,” by English poet William Ernest Henley, written in 1875. Invictus, Latin for “unconquered,” is the title of the inspirational 2009 movie chronicling the Mandela miracle, produced and directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Matt Damon and Morgan Freemen.)

Few stories in modern times match Nelson Mandela’s. It is a story about a political genius; a story of epic proportion that offers insightful lessons in political leadership.

Mandela spent 27 years in prison for political crimes, including 18 at Robben Island, renowned for its institutional brutality inflicted on anti-Apartheid protagonists. He emerged at age 71, not bitter or seeking revenge, but as an energized man. He immediately set out to build his deeply divided South Africa into a “rainbow” nation.

Mandela did this by channeling his energies in a nonviolent and non-confrontational fashion. He was singularly responsible for pioneering South Africa’s first multiracial elections in 1994. Immediately on ascending to the presidency, he developed a strategy to reconcile and unite a country made up of majority blacks with the a white minority regime consisting largely of apartheid-driven, ultraconservative Afrikaans. For close to half a century, they ruled unmercifully and the blacks lived in abject fear of the whites.

Mandela rejected retribution, embracing an overarching political philosophy of reconciliation and comity. He showed compelling leadership qualities of authenticity, restraint, generosity, and compassion. He advocated a genuine bipartisan approach to problem-solving, reaching out to the entire political spectrum including the “enemies.”

Mandela’s overarching strategy was to identify a key event that could garner passionate support from a broad-based constituency of whites and blacks and eventually lessen the distrust and hatred. That event was the 1995 Rugby World Cup hosted by South Africa; and Mandela co-opted the South African Springbok team as his reconciliation tool. It’s a story that, as far as I’m concerned, cannot be told too often.

The Springboks, largely Afrikaners and made up of all white players except one colored winger, were the defining symbol of white supremacy and racial hatred and despised by the blacks. To carry out his strategy, Mandela first reached out to and then threw his enthusiastic support behind the Springbok enemy, angering his followers.

During the build-up to the World Cup games, Mandela persuaded the enemy to reach out to its enemy, Mandela’s angered followers, and tensions began to thaw. Then, with a worldwide TV audience of 2.67 billion watching the finals, the Springboks defeated the favored New Zealand team in a nail-biting extra-time contest. Immediately after the game in an iconic moment in the history of the sport, Mandela marched on the field with a resplendent smile, sporting a Springbok rugby jersey and cap, to present the winning trophy to the Springbok captain. The 62,000 delirious fans, black, white and colored, deafeningly chanting “Nelson! Nelson!” embraced one another, as did the millions of South Africans throughout the land viewing on TV. It didn’t rain in Johannesburg that day, but the multicolored rainbow was magnificent.

The Mandela Miracle transformed a political culture that was deeply partisan and what many believed hopelessly divided. The fault lines were many but political ideology was at the center, fueled by dislike and distrust. Mandela brought about a major transformation of the political culture and the way his people and their elected representatives dealt with one another. And he did it in just 13 months, an ephemeral timeline on most political calendars.

Leadership is all about providing inspiration and, in modern history, Mandela has few equals. He led by example. He was totally and transparently authentic. He preached compassion, restraint, and generosity. He inspired both his followers and his adversaries to embrace one another and relentlessly exhorted them to find common ground.

On the recent occasion of Nelson Mandela’s 92nd birthday, President Obama issued this statement:

“We are grateful to continue to be blessed with his extraordinary vision, leadership, and spirit. And we strive to build upon his example of tolerance, compassion, and reconciliation.”

Nelson Mandela is a leader par excellence. World leaders often pay ceremonial tribute to the man but don’t practice his teachings. His miracle is a lesson that political leaders in the United States should take seriously. It could pave the way for a renaissance of our political culture. It would surely please him to learn that others have not only drawn wisdom and strength from his efforts but also went on to act on them.


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