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How Nelson Mandela Bent History

Twenty-five years after his election, and nearly 101 years after his birth, Nelson Mandela is remembered as a statesman, a liberator, an icon, and a secular saint. But before he was any of those things, he was a highly skilled politician.

SEATTLE – Twenty-five years ago, South Africa held its first free elections after the end of apartheid. The African National Congress won overwhelmingly, and its leader, Nelson Mandela, began to knit the country back together as its new president. As post-apartheid South Africa completes its sixth democratic election, it is worth recalling Mandela’s formidable legacy.

In 1994, I was a young journalist at the Financial Times, tasked with watching Clarence Makwetu, the leader of the far-left Pan Africanist Congress party, cast his vote. Makwetu had no interest in reconciliation. During apartheid, the PAC’s military wing had adopted the slogan “one settler, one bullet,” and its members had called for pushing “all whites into the sea.”

With no reliable polling of black voters having ever taken place in South Africa, some predicted that Makwetu and his party could secure up to one-quarter of the vote. Such an outcome, many worried, could trigger an eruption of violence, and at first it seemed like that would be the case.