A remarkable leader who used his saintly profile to powerful political effect.

This was how Griffith University political scientist Professor John Kane described Nelson Mandela today, following the death of South Africa’s first black president at the age of 95.

“He is a prime example of someone who used moral capital to great effect,” Professor Kane said.

“Mandela always used his moral prestige for political ends. Everything he did had a clear political purpose.”

Professor Kane, based at Griffith’s Centre for Governance and Public Policy in Brisbane, analysed Mandela’s leadership skills in his book The Politics of Moral Capital.

“Being moral in politics is useless unless you are highly political too. Mandela knew this, and he was. His unique profile gave him the leadership opportunity to bring about political change and take advantage of the high moral ground.”

Professor Kane says Mandela had to rethink his youthful Black Pimpernel days while in prison, ultimately replacing the romantic freedom fighter locked up on Robben Island with a careful and astutely political leader who could grasp the opportunity fame presented to him.

“He started to activate his plan while in prison through unilateral moves towards the white government in a series of secret meetings. He had a lot of resistance to overcome on his own side from people who distrusted or condemned his conciliatory stance or who wished to continue the armed struggle. He had to manage and placate these forces before he was in a strong enough leadership position to achieve his ends.”

Professor Kane says Mandela’s negotiations with the last president of Apartheid-era South Africa, FW de Klerk, plus his influence in disarming guerrilla leaders on both white and black sides, displayed an extraordinary capacity to use the moral capital he had accumulated over decades as South Africa’s most famous prisoner.

“His great achievement when he emerged from prison was to negotiate a compromise with de Klerk that founded the new, non-racial and thoroughly democratic South Africa, and in so doing to avoid the blood bath that had been widely expected.

“It was a very rocky road and a remarkable journey. But he stuck at it.”

Professor Kane believes the politics of moral capital can remain effective today, given the appropriate situation and personalities.

He highlights Aung San Suu Kyi, opposition leader of Myanmar (Burma), as a modern day example of a leader adept at deploying moral capital to political effect, and suggests that history might have been different if a political leader with such moral prestige and determination had been involved in moves to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“If Yasser Arafat had been more of a Mandela than an Arafat, the narrative might have been a very different one.”