The Mandela Revolution


Several years prior to Mandela’s release from prison, TNG was asked by a religious organization to slip clandestinely into South Africa to help with a problem. They knew that apartheid was coming to an end and, when it did, in order to ward off a potential civil war, it would be religious leaders – black and white – who would have the most influence in bringing the two races together. While meeting secretly on a black reservation for five days and nights, our charge was to provide the twelve black and twelve white ministers skills, tools and strategies that would be essential in the next few years. 

TNG assumed the participants would come prepared to work together, since all were motivated by similar desires. What we failed to anticipate was the degree of antipathy and suspicion that each group had for the other. Our naive assumption was that these men of God had resolved their own issues with the other race. How wrong we were. Nothing could begin until the individual and collective healing had occurred between these groups.


As often occurs, our pre-planning and subsequent design was deconstructed within hours and re-designed emergently. Of the five days, 2 ½ directly addressed the hundred years of mistrust and hurt that lay like a swamp between these two groups. Neither they nor we had a clue at the depth of the caution, the wariness, the defensiveness and hostility that existed between them. The catharsis and ruthless honesty that followed was the only way, regardless of the forgiveness and compassion foundational in their Christian beliefs.  How could the black leaders believe the words of the others regardless of their current stance of good will? Yet, the whites were there for the right reasons. It didn’t matter. Our job was to legitimize the pain and fear and doubt that anything would or could change. And it did. It began slowly with trust being built a word at a time, with deep listening, testing and more listening. Thirty hours of listening over those first days. There could be no short cuts. It was built on the courage and, ultimately, the goodwill of the two groups. Later it would be mirrored in the patience and pain that evolved from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that drew the combatants back from the edge of Civil War. 


In all our work, appearances almost always belie what the reality is within in any group or organization. Yet that truth has to be discovered through deep listening and learning assessments. What we are told when brought into a client, is rarely the whole story.