Negotiation Case Studies , Negotiating in Life , Negotiation Strategies , Negotiation Research October 11, 2010

What we can learn about negotiation from Nelson Mandela

Former South Africa President Nelson Mandela, now 92 years old, has just published a book, Conversations with Myself, based on the hundreds of notes, letters and other documents that he wrote during his life and especially during his 27 years in prison. Bob Simon profiled the book and the man on Sixty Minutes last night...

Former South Africa President Nelson Mandela, now 92 years old, has just published a book, Conversations with Myself, based on the hundreds of notes, letters and other documents that he wrote during his life and especially during his 27 years in prison. Bob Simon profiled the book and the man on Sixty Minutes last night. You can read the transcript and watch video here.

While Mandela was in prison, he developed a strategy that would later help him defeat apartheid and win the presidency of South Africa.  Bob Simon reports the following:

“Reveal nothing: that was Mandela's strategy. And organize the prisoners into a government in waiting. He never doubted that the racist regime would be overthrown. So even back then, he started preparing. First move: learn the language of the oppressor, Afrikaans.”

Mandela was moved from the Robben Island prison to virtual isolation on the mainland:

"This was the key moment for me in Nelson Mandela's life. This was when he was most at risk, because he starts negotiating from prison on his own. He's incredibly vulnerable," Verne Harris explained.

Asked what could have happened to him, Harris said, "He could have been played into making consessions. He could have been played into compromising himself in ways that would have been irredeemable. And he didn't make one mistake."

A master negotiator, Mandela achieved his life goal of ending apartheid in South Africa and improving the lives of black South Africans. Some of the negotiating lessons we glean from this report are:

  • Speak the language of the other party

  • Keep your cards very close to the vest

  • Do not doubt your chance at success

  • Be prepared

  • Project confidence

  • Do not be coerced into making unnecessary compromises and/or concessions


When Mandela finally won the presidency of South Africa in 1994, Simon says:

“He ruled with the exact same strategy he had employed as a prisoner: don't go for revenge, go for reconciliation.”
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