Serving Tea To Nazis
How Nelson Mandela vanquished enemies with charm
Hello Ruffians. This week’s main feature is about negotiation (in a week when Britain and the EU pulled off quite a successful one) and also about politics, social media, and polarisation. But it’s mainly about Nelson Mandela. This is adapted from my book on productive conflict. Then, after the jump, a rattle bag of goodies.
On 6 May 1993, 15,000 heavily armed white men marched through the town of Potchefstroom, not far from Johannesburg, South Africa. They wore brown shirts with swastikas. Many of them were veterans of the war in Angola. They came from competing factions within the far right but shared a belief in the genetic superiority of white Afrikaners and in the necessity of uniting forces against what they saw as a hostile black takeover of their country.
Just over three years previously, the South African government had released Nelson Mandela from prison, following intense domestic and international pressure, and legalised his party, the African National Congress (ANC). Mandela, who was for the time being in a power-sharing arrangement with the white government, was planning South Africa’s first democratic elections. Elections would inevitably mean the ANC taking power, and Mandela becoming president. The white ‘Afrikaner nation’ would be lost forever - unless it was won through force of arms.
The Potchefstroom march culminated in a fiery speech by Eugene Terreblanche, leader of the Afrikaner Resistance Movement, and an admirer of Adolf Hitler. At the climax of the ceremony, Terreblanche singled out a figure from the crowd. Constand Viljoen, a silverhaired man with a martial bearing, stepped up to the podium, to rapturous applause. General Viljoen was the commander of the South African Defence Force during its most violent years of confrontation with black activists. He had been a ruthless enforcer of white supremacy, organising assassinations of black leaders and imposing brutal punishments on black communities.
Now, Viljoen was apartheid’s last best hope. The white nationalists wanted him to vanquish Mandela, whom they believed should have been hanged a long time ago. To thunderous cheers, he told the crowd he would lead them to the promised land of a separatist white state: “A bloody conflict which will require sacrifices is inevitable, but we will gladly sacrifice because our cause is just.”
Mandela was alarmed by the Potchefstroom demonstration. He had received word that Viljoen was organising a force of as many as 100,000 men, many of them trained fighters. His first option was to mobilise the power of the South African state, including its military, to crush the rebellion before it started. He could have Viljoen arrested for treason or inciting violence. But he decided not to go down that road.
Why? One reason is that would a martyr out of Viljoen, just as Mandela’s own arrest had done for him decades before. Another is that Mandela was not certain that the South African military would back him in a fight against a man many of them revered.
But the deeper reason was that Mandela’s goal was not merely to keep or win power. He wanted to see South Africa become a democracy in which all races and all factions felt included. So he decided on a different course, one that was less obvious and in some ways harder. He invited Viljoen to tea.
In September that year, Mandela contacted Viljoen through secret channels and invited him to meet - not in an official government building, but at Mandela’s home in a Johannesburg suburb. Viljoen showed up accompanied by three other former generals. He knocked on the door and waited for a servant to open it. To his surprise, it was Mandela who greeted them. With a wide smile, the ANC leader shook hands with his visitors, declaring himself delighted to meet them. After ushering them in, Mandela suggested that he and Viljoen talk privately before the formal meeting began.
The two men went into Mandela’s living room. There was a pot of tea on the table. Mandela asked Viljoen if he took tea. Viljoen said yes. Mandela poured him a cup.
Mandela asked Viljoen if he took milk. Viljoen said yes. Mandela served him milk.
Mandela asked if Viljoen took sugar, and Viljoen said yes, and Mandela added some sugar.
Thirteen years later, Viljoen recounted every detail of this encounter to the British journalist John Carlin, who reports it in his book, Knowing Mandela. Carlin describes the elderly Viljoen’s demeanour as reserved and cautious. In telling the story of the tea, however, Viljoen allowed himself a rare expression of amazement.
“All I had to do was stir it!”
Suppose you are meeting someone for the first time – an employer who is interviewing you for a job, or your new tutor at university. As you talk, you are putting in a lot of effort into conveying the version of yourself that you want to convey. The sociologist Erving Goffman called this effort facework.
With people we trust and know well, we don’t have to do so much facework. With those we don’t know – especially with those who have some power over us – we do. When we put in the facework and the other person doesn’t give us back the face we want, it feels terrible. If you try to be seen as high-status (or clever or funny or competent), and someone treats you as if you’re low-status, you feel humiliated.
Negotiators in tense situations put in facework on their own behalf, but the really skilful ones are highly attuned to the other’s face. They look for ways to give face: to confirm the public image that the other person wishes to project. They put their own ego to one side and ask themselves, how can I make the person across the table (literally or metaphorically) feel powerful, respected, decent, smart, likeable? Or at least a little less scared.
You don’t need to be selfless to view this as important. In any tough conversation, when the other person feels their desired face is being accepted and confirmed, they’re going to be a lot easier to deal with, and a lot more likely to listen to what you have to say.
Hostage negotiators sometimes use the term ‘one-down’ to describe the party who feels most insecure about their relative status. The one-down party in a dispute can be very hard to deal with. Whether it’s in a marital argument or an international negotiation, people go to great, even self-destructive lengths to avoid the perception that they are being walked over. One-down parties act irrationally and hyper-competitively. They play dirty, attacking their adversary from unexpected angles. They treat every argument as a desperate, zero-sum game which they must win or at least not lose.
Those who enter a negotiation feeling confident adopt a more relaxed and expansive approach. They take more risks with their reputation, making concessions that might be seen as weak; since they don’t fear losing face, they can reach out a hand. They collaborate in a search for mutually beneficial solutions.
Skilled negotiators are always trying to create the adversary they want. Mandela’s elaborate show of humility towards Viljoen was genuine and also strategic. He sensed that beneath the aggression of the general and his white nationalist followers lay fear of domination and humiliation. His tea service was a way of charming Viljoen, but it wasn’t just that. It was a way of lowering himself in order to make Viljoen feel like an equal.
Having served the general his tea, Mandela switched gears. He pointed out that if their respective sides went into battle, there was no way Viljoen’s forces could defeat the government’s forces, but they could do great damage. Many lives would be lost with no clear winner. It was in the interests of both sides to reach an agreement. Viljoen did not dissent.
Mandela then surprised Viljoen again. He started speaking about his respect for the Afrikaner people – the very people who had branded him a terrorist and a traitor, imprisoned him for decades, destroyed his family life, and systematically oppressed his fellow blacks. The Afrikaners, said Mandela, had done him and his people a huge amount of harm, but he still believed in their humanity. Mandela said that if the child of an Afrikaner’s (black) farm labourer got sick, the Afrikaner farmer would take him in his truck to the hospital, phone to check up on him, and take his parents to see him.
We can’t know for sure that Mandela believed what he said about Afrikaners, but Viljoen didn’t doubt his sincerity, partly because of Mandela’s directness about the damage that Afrikaners had done to him. Something else convinced him too – Mandela spoke to him not in English, but in Afrikaans.
Early in his captivity Mandela decided that black South Africans could not just fight their way to freedom. To achieve democracy they would have to persuade South Africa’s white population to cooperate with them. That meant reassuring them that their identity as Afrikaaners was not under threat. Mandela was trying to teach Viljoen not to hate him or fear him. He was creating the adversary he wanted.
Mandela was a brilliant intuitive psychologist, partly because he had spent so long figuring out how to get what he wanted from a position of powerlessness. In prison, he had turned the white guards into allies and in some cases close friends. One of the first tasks he set himself there was to learn the language of his captors. Some of his fellow political prisoners were upset with Mandela for this. To them, it felt like giving in to the enemy. But to Mandela it was a way to co-opt his oppressors. He studied Afrikaner history, including the exploits of their war heroes. He read Afrikaans novels and poetry. None of this was cynical, a mere trick. Mandela, who was thinking far into the future, believed that Afrikaners belonged to the same land he did. He wanted them to be part of a democratic South Africa and to love them as fellow countrymen, so that they might love people like him. If people can learn to hate, he once said, they can be taught to love.
In the months after their first meeting, Mandela made a gesture that went a long way towards convincing Viljoen to surrender his cause. South Africa’s national anthem was an Afrikaans song of conquest. Now that apartheid was being dismantled, most ANC leaders wanted it replaced with their own liberation anthem. Mandela disagreed. To stamp on such a symbol of Afrikaner pride, he said, would be a grave mistake. He proposed an awkward but workable solution: both anthems would be sung at official occasions, one after the other. Was this a substantial political concession? No. But it was another way for Mandela to reassure Viljoen and his followers that they would not have to give up who they were.
Imagine if Mandela had entered his negotiation with Viljoen the way that people argue with each other in public today. He would have made a full-frontal attack on Viljoen. In front of as many people as possible, he would have branded Viljoen a backward white supremacist with blood on his hands. He would have demanded that Viljoen and his cronies accept Mandela’s terms, and the shame of history. If Viljoen made any concessions at all, Mandela would tell him that they were too little, too late.
The thing is, Mandela would have been perfectly justified in doing all this. He would have been right on every count. But how would Viljoen have reacted?
I often see people deeming certain groups, or certain arguments, as beyond the democratic pale, and unworthy of engagement (they like to cite Popper’s paradox of tolerance). There are cases in which I agree with them, but more often, this position seems to be a way to avoid having to argue a case or to do any thinking at all. In those cases, I recall Mandela’s willingness to engage with actual white supremacists who wanted him dead.
In the heat of a dispute, opinion and face are bound tightly together (the novelist Rachel Cusk defines an argument as “an emergency of self-definition”). If we want someone to change their opinion, we have to help them find a way of doing so that doesn’t involve erasing themselves. Then, if and when they do start to come round to our way of thinking, we should avoid scolding them for not agreeing with us all along. (It’s amazing how often this happens - it hardly makes it more tempting for others to switch sides.) We’d do well to remember that those people have achieved something we have not: a change of mind.
Within six months of that first cup of tea with Mandela, Viljoen took what he described as the toughest decision of his life: he ordered his followers to lay down their arms. Shortly after that, he announced that not only would he not disrupt the upcoming democratic elections, he would take part in them. In return for no political concessions whatsoever, Viljoen had given his blessing to a political process that, ten months earlier, he vowed to fight to the death. Mandela had transformed his most formidable enemy into a democratic opponent.
But Viljoen deserves credit, too. He abandoned his original position in order to accept that black South Africans could be fellow citizens and that Mandela could be his leader. He then had to sell that vision to his own side, which meant taking enormous risks with his reputation. He went through a deep, painful change to his mindset. That was brave.
What Mandela did was to help Viljoen realise - emotionally as well as rationally - that he could be part of a democratic nation with a black president and still be proudly himself: an Afrikaner, a military veteran, a South African citizen.
Mandela was inaugurated as president in May 1994. A new parliament opened, one which reflected the racial diversity of South Africa. Viljoen himself had won a seat, after his party picked up nine seats in the election. John Carlin, who was there for the opening, watched Mandela walk into a chamber that had previously been all white and was now two-thirds black. Carlin noticed Viljoen staring at Mandela, entranced. Twelve years later, Carlin put it to Viljoen that what he had seen on his face that day was profound respect, even affection.
Viljoen, uncomfortable with sentiment, replied tersely: “Yes, that would be correct.” Then Viljoen remembered something else. “Mandela saw me and came across the floor, which he was not really supposed to do according to protocol. He shook my hand and he had a big smile on his face and said how happy he was to see me there.” Viljoen recalled someone shouting from the gallery: “Give him a hug, General!”
“And did you?” asked Carlin. Viljoen shook his head. “I am a military man and he was my president,” he said. “I shook his hand and I stood to attention.”
This post is free to read so if you enjoyed it, do share it. And buy my book on productive disagreement, which is called CONFLICTED in most places and HOW TO DISAGREE in the UK. I also give talks on this topic, and others; email/hit reply if you’d like to discuss.
After the jump: thoughts on Keir Starmer’s latest hire, plus the usual pot pourri of juicy links: on smartphones and mental health, AI risk, the psychology of gambling, marketing personas…
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