WASHINGTON -- The election outcome may seem preordained when you’re running for president after you've helped end apartheid and spent 27 years in prison waging that fight.
But when Nelson Mandela made the transition from a revolutionary figure in the black liberation movement to the leading presidential candidate in South Africa’s first open election in 1994, there were question marks.
For starters, neither he nor the party he led -- the African National Congress -- had solid experience with the intricacies of political campaigns, forcing them to figure out, in real time, everything from how to conduct polling to what type of office space created the most constructive environment.
Looking back nearly 20 years later, Mandela’s pollster from that campaign said the civil rights icon faced real political challenges. What made Mandela successful was that he didn't shy away from them.
“He was so self-conscious that the role he was about to play was different than the role he had played and also for the ANC, that they had to make a transition from being a military liberation organization and a social movement into a political party,” said Stan Greenberg in an interview with The Huffington Post. “He was very self-conscious of it and would begin by saying, 'I don’t know anything.'”
Greenberg was one of the people who would explain to Mandela what he needed to know. A longtime anti-apartheid advocate in the U.S. who had spent decades decrying the treatment of the ANC, Greenberg and fellow political adviser Frank Greer were tasked with consulting for Mandela during his first run for office -- not because of Greenberg's commitment to the cause but because ANC elders apparently read Newsweek.
Greenberg had just come off helping guide Bill Clinton to the White House, and his work had been featured in the weekly magazine.
"They had explicitly, as I understand it, pulled out the Newsweek issue on the 'war room' and said, 'We want them!'" Greenberg recalled. "All the decades and things I had done to prepare for this moment, and it had almost nothing to do with that."
On the occasion of Mandela's death last week, Greenberg remembered those frantic, often harrowing months when a "polyglot organization of exiled leaders" found itself on the cusp of power, and a revolutionary figure who had been imprisoned for 27 years became the first democratically elected president of his nation. Mandela never doubted that he was going to run for the office, Greenberg said. But he was not a seasoned campaigner.
"He was always comfortable. If you watched him from his lawyering period to his early ANC period, he was always comfortable," Greenberg said. "But he wasn't a very good speaker. We all use the word charismatic to describe him. But it leads me to step back and ask: What is charisma?"
The campaign faced other hurdles as well. Though there was little quality polling in South Africa, the first numbers they were able to pull weren't overwhelmingly encouraging. As Greenberg wrote in his book Dispatches From the War Room, "there was no white support for the party and the Coloured and Asian voters had defected to the National Party, despite it being the party of apartheid. Among Africans, who comprised 76 percent of the potential vote, the ANC had stronger support, but it still ranged unimpressively between 60 and 70 percent." ("Coloured" is a term used in South Africa to refer to people of mixed race, whom the apartheid regime differentiated from black Africans.)
Such numbers would not be a problem in America's political system. But, as Greenberg noted, the first post-apartheid South African government was a unity government, meaning that the number of ministers would be allocated according to a party's proportion of the vote. (In the end, former President F.W. de Klerk and the old ruling National Party would choose six members of the Cabinet.) There was, in short, an incentive to run up the score.
Even before getting to that point, however, the ANC would have to find a way to inspire a populace roiled by violence and economic inequality. Mandela, Greenberg recalled, devoted himself fully to the task. He sat through hours of poll briefings "so tedious, I was going to die," Greenberg said. He watched focus groups through glass walls and tinkered with campaign messaging until it hit the right note.
The last part was critical, Greenberg said. While the natural tendency for the ANC was to try to punish the National Party for the horrors of apartheid, it was better politics to focus on future progress over past transgressions. "Apartheid is a trap," Greenberg told the ANC, proposing instead to attack de Klerk over housing and employment policies.
"What we discovered was the voters were pretty dispirited because of the long negotiations but also because the election wasn't offering them anything, other than power," said Greenberg. "He knew he couldn't win many whites. But for him, winning Coloured and Asian voters was critical so it wasn't just black nationalism. ... He wanted to be inclusive. And it was in that process that we came to better realize -- it became apparent that it was about using power and not just seizing power."
The campaign discarded the theme "Now Is the Time" and embraced a new one: "A Better Life for All." Mandela stopped delivering speeches with party leaders staged behind him in favor of "people forums" -- town hall meetings.
"That changed everything. He loved it," said Greenberg. "He was taking questions and was on the equal level of people asking the questions."
Violence flared up throughout the campaign, challenging the ANC's posture and Mandela's patience. He was furious and went on television to decry the killings.
Privately, Mandela's disdain for other parties grew. The Pan African Congress (PAC), which advocated black nationalism, drew his ire in particular, even though it was winning a scant 2 percent of the vote in public opinion polls.
"He cared more about beating the PAC than he did about beating the National Party," said Greenberg. "I think it was a personal vindication of his worldview, which obviously, for him, he had spent 27 years in prison for."
Mandela could be a tenacious politician in that sense. Greenberg recalled that "he hated de Klerk," believing strongly that "there was a third force in the government that was fostering that black-on-black violence." When it came time for the two to debate, Mandela was ruthless.
"It wasn't so much a quarrel as a cat fight" is how the Los Angeles Times described it. Other media outlets remarked on how quickly Mandela attacked his opponent for dishonesty, divisiveness and poor economic stewardship. He "ripped out de Klerk's heart," said Greenberg.
And then, before it was all over, Mandela reached out and shook de Klerk's hand, saying that the two of them must "work together to end division and suspicion." It may have been that Mandela knew, at that moment, that he would need to work with de Klerk into the next government. It may have been instinctual. It may have been that Greenberg and Greer had advised him repeatedly to avoid confrontation ("I realized you were going to be angry with me for being so mean to Mr. de Klerk," Mandela would tell them as he walked off stage). Whatever the reason, it was a brilliant closing act.
Just weeks later, the ANC would win 252 of the 400 seats in the parliament and Mandela would become the country's first black president.