The American Campaign Operatives Behind Mandela’s Presidential Campaign

Stanley Greenberg and Frank Greer got to see the late icon up close when they worked for his election.

African National Congress (ANC) President Nelson Mandela greets young supporters who wait for atop a billboard in a township outside Durban, 16 April 1994 prior to an election rally. South Africans will vote 27 April 1994 in the country's first democratic and multiracial general elections.
AFP/Getty Images
Ronald Brownstein
Dec. 12, 2013, 4 p.m.

Mil­lions of Amer­ic­ans were moved and in­spired by Nel­son Man­dela. But only a hand­ful ever worked for him.

Stan­ley Green­berg and Frank Greer, two long­time Demo­crat­ic polit­ic­al con­sult­ants, make both lists. Just after their lead­ing roles in Bill Clin­ton’s 1992 pres­id­en­tial elec­tion, Green­berg, a poll­ster, and Greer, a me­dia ad­viser, joined a non­par­tis­an del­eg­a­tion that con­duc­ted a 1993 elec­tion work­shop for all of South Africa’s polit­ic­al parties. When a rep­res­ent­at­ive of Man­dela’s Afric­an Na­tion­al Con­gress ap­proached them after the meet­ing to work for his cam­paign in the na­tion’s first postapartheid elec­tion the next year, each quickly agreed.

From that day for­ward, few Amer­ic­ans saw Man­dela from as re­veal­ing a per­spect­ive as they did. Green­berg spent more time on the ground, but both ad­vised him in his 1994 cam­paign and sub­sequent pres­id­ency. And each, in a ca­reer of serving out­sized per­son­al­it­ies and in­can­des­cent achiev­ers, re­cog­nized Man­dela as a ti­tan­ic fig­ure dis­tin­guished by his dis­tinct­ive blend of de­term­in­a­tion and em­pathy, ideal­ism and prag­mat­ism, sweep­ing vis­ion and per­son­al kind­ness. “In meet­ings where he was mak­ing enorm­ous judg­ments that had im­mense con­sequences, he was also do­ing per­son­al things for the people in the room,” Green­berg re­called this week. Greer said, “The more you got to know him, he was big­ger than his pub­lic im­age, be­cause he was so thought­ful and gen­er­ous. I had rarely seen any­body who was so big of spir­it.”

For each man, the op­por­tun­ity to ad­vise Man­dela struck a deeply per­son­al chord. Be­fore be­gin­ning his polling ca­reer, Green­berg had lived in South Africa as a young polit­ic­al sci­ent­ist, writ­ten an “im­pen­et­rable” book about it, and test­i­fied in Con­gress for sanc­tions against the apartheid gov­ern­ment. Greer saw his work in South Africa as a cul­min­a­tion of his op­pos­i­tion to se­greg­a­tion (“our own sys­tem of apartheid”) in the Alabama of his youth. Both were con­scious of their in­con­gru­ous status as white Amer­ic­ans ad­vising an Afric­an move­ment whose gruel­ing ra­cial struggle was sym­bol­ized by Man­dela’s 27 years in pris­on. And yet both say they were wel­comed, not least by Man­dela him­self.

Mostly, each per­ceived in Man­dela a lead­er with an un­matched sense of pro­por­tion and per­spect­ive, who could peer dis­tantly in­to his­tory’s long arc without for­get­ting the hu­man­ity of those around him. Green­berg saw this com­bin­a­tion most vividly when Man­dela met with his closest ad­visers dur­ing the tur­bu­lent fi­nal days of the 1994 elec­tion that ul­ti­mately saw his se­lec­tion as pres­id­ent.

The group sat in the ANC’s Jo­han­nes­burg headquar­ters trad­ing re­ports about armed at­tacks on voters and blatant vote-steal­ing by the Inkatha Free­dom Party, a rival rooted in the Zulu tribe, in its strong­hold of the north­east­ern province of KwaZulu-Nat­al. Quickly, a sense of out­rage grew around the table, fueled partly by memor­ies of an as­sault from Inkatha sup­port­ers on the ANC headquar­ters it­self only a few weeks earli­er.

While the group bristled with de­mands to chal­lenge the elec­tion res­ults, Man­dela said noth­ing. In­stead, he circled the table, quietly pour­ing cof­fee or tea for his aides. Only after every­one spoke did Man­dela fi­nally in­ter­vene. He told the group there would be no protest, no press con­fer­ence, no cloud over the res­ults. “We will not do any­thing to make the elec­tion il­le­git­im­ate,” he said simply.

To Green­berg, who re­coun­ted the story in his 2009 mem­oir, Dis­patches From the War Room, the mo­ment cap­tured Man­dela’s great­ness. While his ad­visers were windswept by their (un­der­stand­able) sense of griev­ance, Man­dela re­cog­nized that with the ANC still headed for vic­tory, it was more im­port­ant to avoid ques­tion­ing the valid­ity of an elec­tion that con­sec­rated the his­tor­ic shift of power from the white minor­ity to the black ma­jor­ity. “There was a calmness about him amid this mad­ness,” Green­berg said. “He had his eye on the prize and this un­be­liev­able ma­ture judg­ment that let him “¦ go to ob­vi­ously the right de­cision.”

Greer saw Man­dela’s unique com­bin­a­tion of gifts when he sat alone with him just be­fore his sole 1994 de­bate with F.W. de Klerk, South Africa’s last apartheid pres­id­ent and the lead­er of the op­pos­ing Na­tion­al Party. The stakes were enorm­ous, and yet Man­dela sur­prised Greer by ask­ing if he had any chil­dren; when Greer said he had a young daugh­ter, Man­dela asked if he had a pic­ture of her. After Greer pro­duced it, Man­dela wrote her a note on the back, so that, he told Greer, the little girl would know why her fath­er was so far from home. Then Man­dela walked in­to the de­bate and sealed his vic­tory with a dom­in­at­ing per­form­ance.

In power, the ANC has struggled to de­liv­er on the ini­tial cam­paign slo­gan Green­berg and Greer helped coin: “A bet­ter life for all.” Greer re­mains sym­path­et­ic to the ANC, but Green­berg, dis­il­lu­sioned with Man­dela’s suc­cessors, now ad­vises the op­pos­i­tion Demo­crat­ic Al­li­ance. Yet they re­main united in the con­vic­tion that Man­dela’s unique abil­ity to ad­vance his goal of a mul­tiracial demo­cracy, while tire­lessly re­as­sur­ing those who feared that res­ult, al­lowed him to uni­fy a na­tion that might have frac­tured in­to chaos. Man­dela viewed em­pathy, con­ces­sion, and prag­mat­ism as ser­vants to ideals, not their en­emies — a les­son too many Amer­ic­ans have for­got­ten.

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