Mandela and Kissinger contrasted

Shawn Hagedorn says our national dialogue has focused on justice to the point of blinding us to solutions

Contrasting Mandela and Kissinger

29 May 2023

Kissinger has frequently been labelled ruthless and even a war criminal. Mandela went from being an international icon depicting the oppressed to being a globally lauded statesman. Even among those who unemotionally associate Kissinger with realism and Mandela with idealism, many would scoff at the comparison.

The question could be rephrased as: Should leaders be more justice focused or solution oriented? But comparing Mandela and Kissinger would be far less abstract. With Kissinger celebrating his 100th birthday on the 27th of May, and as the ANC’s credibility plumbs new lows daily, the two are well cast to help us assess the pros and cons of prioritising justice versus having a solution orientation which is less constrained by ideals.

Would you ‘tune’ a hungry South African teenager who says, ‘I don’t care about the politics and injustices, I just want a job’? Older people are unlikely to know that “tune” is a slightly aggressive colloquial synonym for inform or teach. Nor are they likely to be fully attuned to the desperation that awaits the next generation.


Of course values are very important. That can make exploiting them extremely lucrative. This seems to be the response of ANC elites to Mandela’s exceptional leadership. The ANC’s redistribution policies are more aggressive than ever. They’ve been in power for nearly three decades and life prospects for most young South Africans are simply horrific.

It was never going to be easy to balance the political imperative of redressing apartheid with the need to achieve sustained high growth. Initial efforts to balance the country’s solution-versus-justice challenges seemed promising. Today we know that the ANC’s policies prioritising redistribution have undermined growth to feed a seemingly insatiable patronage network.

Most SA high income households are now black and yet we still have the world’s highest income inequality. Whites leaving doesn’t reduce inequality as the black income hierarchy is narrow towards the top while a large majority is entrenched in poverty - despite global poverty having plummeted over the last three decades. Referencing long-standing economic stagnation of household incomes and spectacular SOE failures understate the ANC’s truly horrific economic stewardship.

BEE and related policies have led to an all-in (including discouraged would-be workers) youth unemployment rate over 70% despite only 5% of school leavers being white. As our economic growth potential is expected to expand at a pace no greater than our population growth, our huge unemployment backlog is entrenched. It is very hard to construct a credible scenario where this crucial metric might be noticeably better in ten or fifteen years.

A large majority of our currently unemployed young adults will never be meaningfully employed. The ANC has condemned them to lifelong poverty. Most of those soon to begin school won’t receive a decent education or become meaningfully employed.

Workable solutions

The ANC’s aberrant values and patronage-supporting policies have so twisted the economy’s prospects that none of our leaders come close to offering workable solutions. Big business and others sought to align interests with the ANC by jointly pursuing investment-led growth. If that had gone well, it is conceivable, though unlikely, that employment prospects would have become robust by mid century.

The investment-led growth plan fell flat and now none of our leaders can articulate a viable plan to achieve and sustain healthy growth. A workable plan to steadily grow jobs is even more elusive.

The ANC still goes on about apartheid and its opponents harangue about corruption. Our national dialogue is not solution focused. It is overwhelmed by values-based debates which the ANC ruthlessly exploits.

With the (unfair) advantage of hindsight, it seems that Mandela should have risked his standing in the party to try to fully revamp its culture. Instead, this paragon of virtue sought to lead by example. It was left to Mbeki to balance growth versus redistribution.

Mbeki and Manuel could exhibit competence and integrity but, ultimately, they sought to balance various interests and objectives. A powerful vision, a solution path that could lead to broad prosperity, never emerged. It seems fair to say that justice considerations amplified obstacles while complicating tradeoffs.

War criminal

While SA’s current situation is as unusual as it is dire, Kissinger’s adopted home, the US, is also contending with justice considerations undermining its prospects. Among many examples is President Biden’s calling his Russian counterpart a war criminal. This echoes a broadly acknowledged injustice for little, if any, real benefit. Rather, it substantially complicates prospects for an agreement to end the fighting.

It now seems plausible that Ramaphosa and the four other heads of African states who will soon visit Moscow and Kiev will recommend cease fire terms whereby the West lifts its sanctions. Such a gambit won’t succeed but there shouldn’t be an opening for such self-serving galavanting.

Nor would an autocracy like China have been able to negotiate better relations between the oppressive governments of Saudi Arabia and Iran if Biden had not publicly scolded Saudi Arabia’s crown prince. Biden did so for no discernable benefit other than to energise his political base by flaunting his values.

When Kissinger travelled secretly to meet China’s leaders over a half-century ago, Chairman Mao was known to have been supremely complicit in the fully avoidable deaths of tens of millions of Chinese peasants. Those meetings helped foster a series of world changing events including about a billion Chinese escaping poverty and the end of the Cold War. Kissinger’s shuttle diplomacy was also instrumental to ending the US-Vietnam war and to negotiating a peace between Egypt and Israel. Both have held for over forty years.

Kissinger, like many statesmen, needed to negotiate with many sketchy characters. His substantial successes relied on seeking to understand the key actors; this requires resisting the urge to judge. Somewhat ironically, his recently released, and presumably last book expresses his views on six of the 20th century leaders he had known well.

Get news

The internet has radically disrupted how people get news and form their political views. Initially, it disrupted or eliminated revenue models, such as classified ads. Then social media further upended the news media landscape. Inciting partisanship, sometimes abruptly, more often subtly, became a frequently employed survival strategy for news organisations.

The formulas for doing this often mix appealing to people’s values while encouraging them to make moral judgements. This doesn’t sound terrible but it undermines focusing on solutions and it encourages strident partisanship - if not harsh polarisation, as in the US today.

People are too willing to accept interpretations that suit their preferred narratives. It was widely reported in the earliest days of Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine that the world’s top military experts very much expected Putin to succeed. The more appealing narrative, which many news outlets actively encourage, is that Putin’s decision was not just wrong but that it was foolish. Making him out to be dumb is not prudent - but it is popular.

The G7 was just held in Hiroshima. Many people take it as a given that US President Truman’s decision to drop a nuclear bomb there was immoral or, at least, extraordinarily controversial. But that decision would not have been necessary if his predecessor, Franklin Roosevelt, had not insisted on “unconditional surrender.” This was the truly controversial decision and it resulted in the Hiroshima deaths and far more. But without that profoundly aggressive stance, a lasting peace could not have been assured and the subsequent plunging of poverty across Asia would have been far less likely. Grading leaders distracts from understanding their decisions.

Excessively exceptional

Mandela was an exceptional role model; perhaps he was excessively exceptional. When he elected to retire, we expected him to continue to guide us. As he did speak out regarding Mbeki’s misguided AIDS policies, many expected a wheelchair bound Mandela to constrain Zuma’s rush to indulge recklessly.

Leaders make mistakes and they have successes. Rather than ranking them morally, we should be learning from their successes and mistakes. Our emphasis on values has suffocated our potential to design solutions.

We can only meaningfully reduce unemployment by mimicking the successful countries that add value to exports destined for affluent consumers. Yet this is not considered. Investment-led growth and exporting to Africa can buy elites a bit of time. But this comes at the cost of entrenching politically destabilising levels of unemployment and poverty. Justice is not advanced.

Trying to teach Mandela’s depth of character is more aspirational than practical. His enduring influence on ANC ethics is undetectable. Conversely, Kissinger taught using a solution-focused syllabus before and after he worked in the White House. There is a long list of his former students, and their former students, who have contributed much.

Our national dialogue has focused on justice to the point of blinding us to solutions.