Negotiation Strategies and Techniques for Activists: Lessons from Mandela

Negotiations strategies and techniques employed by the late statesman and activist to dismantle apartheid in South Africa may offer guidance to today’s activists.

By on / Negotiation Skills

negotiation strategies and techniques

In the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis by a White police officer, activists, politicians, and other concerned citizens are grappling with a big question: Where do we go from here? The quest for reforms to policing and other societal institutions can be pursued through many means, including continued demonstrations, political lobbying, and community-wide discussions.

What role do negotiation strategies and techniques play in these efforts? Activists sometimes fear that if they agree to negotiate with a perceived enemy, they’ll end up making costly compromises. Or they might refuse to negotiate on moral grounds with counterparts whose positions or actions they view as untenable.

Yet Black Lives Matter and other activist groups have gained considerable negotiating power through their protests—power that they are using to effect significant societal change. From New York to Minnesota to California, negotiation is emerging as a critical tool in efforts to reform and defund police departments.

Notably, many heroes of social-justice activism—including Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Vaclav Havel—have been accomplished negotiators. The negotiation strategies and techniques that Mandela used to help end apartheid in South Africa may be instructive as today’s activists consider the types of negotiation skills needed to seize new opportunities.


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Going in a New Direction

While serving a life sentence at South Africa’s brutal Robben Island prison, Mandela befriended many of his White captors and tried to persuade younger political inmates to analyze their opponents’ strengths rather than plunging headlong into conflict. “Prison taught [Mandela] to be a master negotiator,” wrote Bill Keller in his New York Times obituary of the legendary activist-turned-president, who died in 2013.

In 1985, 23 years into his imprisonment, numerous signs—including international pressure and growing violence between protestors and the police—indicated the apartheid regime was weakening. Mandela had rejected the possibility of negotiating with the South African government, saying, “Only free men can negotiate.” The government also took a hard line against negotiating with the African National Congress, the anti-apartheid group that Mandela helped to lead, believing that doing so would signal weakness.

Nonetheless, Mandela decided to try to launch negotiations between the ANC and the government, though he had no authority to speak on behalf of the collectively run ANC. He launched clandestine talks with South Africa’s minister of justice, Kobie Coetsee, that laid the groundwork for a democratic, post-apartheid South Africa.

“There are times when a leader must move out ahead of the flock,” Mandela wrote of his bold decision to capitalize on his power in negotiation in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom (Little, Brown, 1994), and “go off in a new direction, confident that he is leading people the right way.” While Mandela’s stealth overtures were controversial, they remind us that authority and powers of persuasion can be critical skills needed for negotiation.

A Pragmatic Perspective

One of Mandela’s noteworthy negotiation strategies and techniques speaks to the role of emotion in negotiation: his ability to speak calmly with his enemies at the same time that he was absorbed in a passionate, all-consuming struggle against them. Asked by Keller in 2007 to explain how he kept his hatred of the regime that had oppressed him and his people in check, Mandela replied, “Hating clouds the mind. It gets in the way of strategy. Leaders cannot afford to hate.”

As illustrated by his eventual willingness to negotiate with the apartheid government, Mandela was at heart a pragmatist rather than an ideologue. “He was not a theoretician, but he was a doer,” a longtime colleague of Mandela’s, Joe Matthews, said of him in an interview with the television show Frontline. “He was a man who did things, and he was always ready to volunteer to be the first to do any dangerous or difficult thing.”

Mandela’s decision to initiate negotiations with the South African government from prison showed his willingness to change his positions in the service of his greater goals. Not negotiating with an enemy on moral grounds can be a legitimate decision. But when we take a hardline stance without thoroughly analyzing the likely costs and benefits of negotiating, we risk letting our principles to get in the way of the greater good.

Today’s activists must make their own choices about when to protest, when to negotiate, and when to do both. Mandela’s negotiation strategies and techniques, including his stances on power in negotiation, hint at the benefits that may come from making the pragmatic decision to sit down at the bargaining table with one’s enemies.

What negotiation strategies and techniques have you used effectively when negotiating with a sworn enemy for change?

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