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Mandela and the public opinion war

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When he spoke at the opening of his 1964 trial, Nelson Mandela never denied that he planned sabotage against the white South African government. In fact, he painstakingly explained his rationale for violence, having concluded that peaceful means to gaining civil rights for blacks were not working.

Although Mandela lost that battle— he served 27 years in prison for his opposition to the government and its policy of apartheid—he won the war of public opinion, eventually winning his freedom and becoming the first democratically elected president of South Africa.

Lesson: The fuller and richer your explanations of what you’re trying to do and why, the more likely you are to win followers.

Without equal rights, Mandela explained before being sent to prison, black South Africans would never achieve any other kind of equality.

“I know this sounds revolutionary to the whites in this country,” he said, “because the majority of voters will be Africans. This makes the white man fear democracy. But this fear cannot be allowed to stand in the way of the only solution which will guarantee racial harmony and freedom for all.”

Mandela cherished the idea of a democratic society in which everyone enjoyed equal opportunities.

“It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve,” he said. “But if need be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

—Adapted from Nelson Mandela in His Own Words, Kader Asmal, David Chidester, Wilmot James, editors, Little, Brown and Co.

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