The power of respect

Image of Simon Kuper

The letter is in neat cursive handwriting. It is addressed to the South African writer Alan Paton. It’s dated July 29 1979. And it was never sent. Some censor has scrawled in Afrikaans on top: “Rejected. No notification. Objection to Alan Paton.”

Nelson Mandela’s letter from jail was recently unearthed by Sahm Venter of the Nelson Mandela Foundation. It caught my eye, partly because the letter discusses my late great-uncle and great-aunt, Leo and Hilda Kuper, and partly because, in 1,000 words, it manages to encapsulate Mandela the master-politician.

It’s in the sweetest of tones. Mandela, in prison since 1963, starts by thanking Paton (the author of Cry, the Beloved Country) “for your courageous response of June 1965”. Presumably he means June 1964, when Paton testified for Mandela at the Rivonia trial where Mandela got his life sentence. Odd that he should have mistaken the date. Then Mandela commiserates over Paton’s wife’s death. And he recalls that in his last letter – which he knows Paton may never have received – “I mentioned the Browns, Kupers and the late Dr Edgar Brookes and asked you to give them my fondest regards”. These people were white South African liberals like Paton.

Mandela’s kind words are the surface. Beneath lurk conflicts. He hints at this just before signing off. He hopes, he writes, “to clear any debris that might block the free passage of the love and goodwill that characterises the relations between our respective families. Particularly at this moment, I like you never to forget that.”

Peter Alexander, Paton’s biographer, thinks this refers to a spat between Paton and Mandela’s then wife, Winnie. After an argument, says Alexander, “Winnie wrote Paton an absolutely savage letter calling him a white racist.” From prison, Mandela is trying to heal rifts.

He is healing political rifts, too. Many in Mandela’s ANC loathed Paton, because he opposed the “armed struggle” and sanctions against apartheid. Mandela was writing from life imprisonment to a political opponent, and yet he hugged him close. Mandela knew the power of treating people with “respect, ordinary respect”. Show your opponents respect, and they would bend. Respect came naturally to him, but it was also his greatest weapon. He showed it even to P.W. Botha and Colonel Gaddafi.

I see it when he discusses my great-uncle and great-aunt, social scientists who opposed apartheid. “I met the Kupers only once,” Mandela begins, “in their house in Durban. Although I am confident that they will never cease burrowing wherever they may be, I was sorry to hear they had emigrated. Their exit must have weakened their school of thought in several directions.” Mandela says he heard they had left when he’d tried to order Leo’s (banned) book, An African Bourgeoisie. They had gone to teach at UCLA. I remember their lovely bungalow in Westwood, Los Angeles.

This passage requires a little background. In 1956 Leo and Paton were charged after speaking at a public meeting for Mandela and 155 others arrested in the “Treason trial”. In the dock, Paton told Leo that he didn’t mind being there at all. Paton later wrote: “He said to me, with that gentle smile, ‘I don’t like it at all’.” Leo loathed conflict and violence, particularly after his brother, my grandfather, was murdered in Johannesburg in 1963. He couldn’t do armed struggle. So he emigrated, and wrote about central African genocides – a moral task, he felt. Paton was angry with Leo and Hilda for leaving. Yet Mandela, from his cold cell, writes of them only with fondness.

However, there’s a deeper point to his letter than “ordinary respect”. Mandela never got hung up on the tactics of the moment. To him, whether you supported armed struggle or sanctions was just a tactical decision. The bigger issue was your goal. Great politicians focus on only one or two goals. The rest is just detail. Clement Attlee’s goal was expanding Britain’s welfare state, and Ronald Reagan’s was cutting taxes. Because their goals were fixed, but their tactics flexible, they achieved their aims.

Mandela’s goal never changed: a free nonracial South Africa. “It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve,” he told the court at the Rivonia trial. “But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

Whether that ideal should be achieved with violence, whether afterwards the ANC should nationalise all property – to him these were details. It was silly to get hung up on them, particularly because history takes us all by surprise. What suddenly ended apartheid in 1990 wasn’t sanctions or armed struggle or Paton’s sermons. It was the collapse of the Soviet bloc (which deprived the apartheid regime of its geopolitical significance), plus angry youth in the townships. And then, as the longtime South African communist Albie Sachs told me, “the communists made the liberal revolution”. A month before Leo died in LA in 1994, Mandela was elected president of South Africa. Ordinary respect, and a clear goal, had taken him there.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.