An Icon’s Masterclass…

In the way distant past, I wrote a story about how, in trying to realize our dreams, we  should really take nothing for granted. To make my point, I wrote about how almost everyone who has ever read the story of  David and Goliath has taken it for granted that David, the small shepherder with only a modest slingshot and a few smooth small stones, was the underdog in his epic encounter with the giant, Goliath, with his suit of armor, shield and sharp, shiny, deadly weapons of war.

I wrote about how only David seems to have understood why he never regarded himself as the underdog in that encounter. And, for the reasons I described in that story, we now know he was right. Amusingly, we now know that the only underdog in that encounter was actually Goliath…

As this hopefully percolates furiously in your minds, I’ve another David and Goliath story for you. Like in the biblical tale, you might be tempted to treat the David in my latest story as the underdog in the encounter with his Goliath. But, if you are so tempted, you’d also be quite wrong…


The David in my story was an icon—a black man named Nelson Mandela. His Goliath was South Africa’s white supremacist and all-powerful apartheid government with its powerful army and a brutal security force. In my story, their encounter was a negotiation that would lead to further negotiations that would ultimately determine the fate of South Africa.

As you’ll note, this was hardly an encounter between equals… Our David had neither an army nor a security force. He and other people of color in South Africa had no civil rights that the South African courts could enforce. And, quite apart from this, at  the time of the start of this story and his negotiation with Goliath, our David had already been Goliath’s prisoner for almost 27 years.


The stakes involved in their upcoming negotiation were enormous.

On the one hand, David had two goals: Firstly, he wanted apartheid dismantled. Secondly, he wanted Goliath to end its ongoing and escalating violence against anyone opposed to apartheid.

On the other hand, Goliath wanted that new generation of furious young blacks who hated apartheid to end the havoc they were creating on South Africa’s streets. This was threatening to destroy the country.

The backdrop to these upcoming negotiations was that Goliath was determined not to relinquish any more power than was absolutely necessary in ending the violence on the streets. This is why it  had decided to demand certain pre-conditions before further negotiations could take place. And this is why I’ve referred the negotiation about those pre-conditions as “negotiations-about-negotiations.”

Some context…

To appreciate David’s mindset at a the time and his approach to those negotiations-about-negotiations, you should know a little about apartheid and its defenders.

Apartheid literally means “apartness” or “separateness.” For 300 years, most Afrikaners believed in what they regarded as a fundamental and sacrosanct self-evident white supremacist truth, namely, that the white race was superior to all others. You might be interested to know that the architects of apartheid’s legislative agenda were all interned during World War II as Nazi sympathizers.

So, apartheid was the legislative program designed to maintain white supremacy in South Africa. It decreed that people of color in South Africa had no vote and no rights similar to those granted by the US Constitution that were claimed by the American civil rights movement.

To enforce and protect apartheid, Goliath had created an internal security force that the KGB would have envied. It was given enormous power, which it used brutally in targeting its enemy— anyone it suspected of wanting to end apartheid. Specifically, it saw its primary enemy as the African National Congress and its most eloquent spokesman, Nelson Mandela. Goliath felt that it had neutralized the ANC by holding our David as its prisoner.

As just a quick aside, you may be interested to know that, as the anti-apartheid movement spread like wildfire throughout the world and as the demand for Nelson Mandela’s release from prison grew around the world, a young congressman from Wyoming strenuously opposed his release from prison. The congressman’s name was Dick Cheney.


The story begins…

At the time of this story, as has previously been noted, a new generation of angry young South African blacks was making the country ungovernable. The country was on the edge of a precipice. It was about to explode.

In facing this, Goliath’s president knew he had only two choices. He could either quell the violence in the streets with even greater violence, or he could attempt to negotiate a peaceful settlement with a legitimate and respected black leader who the angry young blacks would follow, while maintaining as much power as he possibly could. In facing these choices, he knew he actually had only one choice…

He knew that our David, who was his prisoner on Robben Island, was the only black leader with the stature to control the anger in the streets. The president was confident about the outcome of these negotiations. After all, as a white supremacist dealing with a black man who had been his prisoner for almost 27 years, what could possibly go wrong? He could our David ever hope to stand up to the white supremacist Goliath?

Perhaps as a show of strength and to create even more leverage and pressure prior on David immediately prior to the start of the negotiation, Goliath decided to increase the violence against those angry young blacks in the streets. It was in this atmosphere that the government appointed a 4-person negotiating team to meet with David.

The selection of the team seemed designed to intimate David. It was headed by Goliath’s Minister of Justice and included its Commissioner of Prisons; its Director General of the Prisons Department; and the head of the National Intelligence Service—the equivalent of the CIA or KGB.

The team’s initial task was to set forth two pre-conditions to any further talks occurring—and to any meeting that David had consistently requested with its president.

Goliath’s first pre-condition…

Goliath’s first pre-condition did not surprise David—

Hw was told there would be absolutely no further negotiations—and certainly no meeting with the president, until David and the ANC had agreed to renounce violence. In particular, the violence on the streets had to end.

To say the team was astonished at David’s response was an understatement—

Without a trace of anger, David said quietly that neither he nor ANC would agree to renounce violence until Goliath itself had renounced violence against all people of color in South Africa.

He followed this with a question the team couldn’t answer:

He asked how anyone could seriously expect either him or the ANC to renounce violence while Goliath was itself escalating its own violence against the ANC? No, he said firmly, this pre-condition was quite unacceptable. Until Goliath itself had renounced violence, the ANC would not.

David was clearly immovable on this. He would not budge. Goliath’s team therefore tried a different approach. They decided to ask for his help in dealing with a dilemma they faced—

Goliath, they explained almost sheepishly, had repeatedly stated in its public comments that it would never negotiate with any organization that advocated violence. How, the team asked with some desperation, could Goliath suddenly announce talks without losing face and credibility? 

David was gracious and acknowledged the problem Goliath faced. He even said he was sympathetic to its plight. If this gave rise to just the slightest hint of hope in Goliath’s team, that hope was quickly extinguished—

Again, without a trace of anger, David stated quietly that Goliath’s dilemma was one of its own making. Goliath, therefore, he suggested, had to resolve its dilemma itself. It would have to deal with what it had created. David would not negotiate against himself. 

And thus it was that David rejected Goliath’s first pre-condition…

Goliath’s second pre-condition

Goliath’s second pre-condition was this—

Goliath demanded that David and the ANC disavow its relationship with the South African Communist Party.

To understand Goliath’s position here is to understand that, while both the ANC and the Communist Party each wanted to eliminate apartheid, they each saw a post-apartheid South Africa quite differently. On the one hand, the Communist Party saw no role for whites in a post-apartheid South Africa. This was a nightmare scenario for Goliath. On the other hand, the ANC saw a role for all South African people, including the whites, in a post-apartheid South Africa.

The reason for this pre-condition was that Goliath was convinced that, if there was an ongoing relationship between the ANC and the Communist Party, the Communist Party with its white and colored leadership would clearly dominate and control the ANC. David understood Goliath’s logic—

For Goliath, whites were inherently superior to blacks. It therefore concluded that whites and coloreds would always dominate and control the black ANC leadership. And Goliath was convinced that, if this occurred, this would be a total disaster for whites in a post-apartheid South Africa. This is why this pre-condition was so important to Goliath. It was almost a non-negotiable condition.

David then set about dismantling Goliath’s argument. That he did so using logic that relied heavily on the very white supremacy supremacy mindset that lay at the foundation of underlying logic of their argument was amusing and only mildly ironic.

David began by framing his argument in a way that he knew Goliath would easily understand—

He knew, for example, that Goliath itself valued loyalty. He therefore began by speaking about the need for friends not to abandon friends. He explained that the Communist Party had always been a friend to the ANC as they each shared the goal of ending apartheid. That they had different visions of a post-apartheid South Africa, he argued, was irrelevant. He then set about explaining why…

He pointed out the historical precedent of unlikely alliances between parties with the same goals, but with different political philosophies. During World War II, he pointed out, the Americans and the Soviet Union were allies in opposing and defeating the Nazis, but this didn’t make the Americans communists or the Soviets capitalists. Similarly, David continued, in the present case, common goals didn’t make the ANC communists. 

No, he concluded, he would not turn his back on his friends in the Communist Party even though they had a different vision for a post-apartheid South Africa.

He then moved on and addressed the central premise of Goliath’s main argument, namely, that blacks could never stand up to whites and coloreds and would always be influenced by them.

He pointed out the obvious, namely, that Goliath’s dream team consisted of the most talented and extraordinarily skilled white people that Goliath had available to it. David’s flattery continued. He said it was clear that each member of Goliath’s team was a brilliant, well-educated, and sophisticated negotiator each with far more experience than he could ever have accumulated over these past 27 years while he was still their prisoner. They nodded in agreement…

David then pointed out something else that appealed directly to Goliath’s team’s vanity and bigotry—

David observed that, in this negotiation he was at a distinct disadvantage.  After he was a black man who alone was facing the four of them. Despite the amazing qualities of Goliath’s gifted team, David pointed out something that they again could deny, namely, that Goliath’s team had been unable either to control him or to get him to change his mind.

As they had to admit this, David delivered his knockout blow—

David then asked them how Goliath could possibly believe that the white and colored leaders of the Communist Party could succeed where its dream team had failed?

Of course, they had no answer to this. By relying on their bigoted white supremacist worldview, David knew it would be unimaginable to Goliath’s dream team that a white or colored communist could succeed against David where Goliath couldn’t.

His reply was brilliant in its logic, common sense, and flattery—and in his insight into how the Goliath’s mind worked.

Thus it was that David rejected Goliath’s two pre-conditions to future negotiations. Goliath reluctantly withdrew those conditions. Future  negotiations were scheduled—as was a meeting between David and Goliath’s president.

An icon’s masterclass—his gifts…

The gifts this short story offer are quite profound—particularly because we always seem to be in a state of constant negotiation as we try to persuade one another to do or not do something. This is what our David taught us as we have to negotiate with anyone to realize our dreams—

Gift #1: Perspective…

David looked at the negotiations through Goliath’s eyes and, in so doing, understood that Goliath had no choice but to deal with him to quell the violence on the streets. Thus is was that he saw himself as having great leverage in this negotiation—leverage that Goliath didn’t appreciate David had. This was because Goliath didn’t look at the negotiations through David’s eyes.

Gift #2: Reciprocity…

David also understood the power of reciprocity in the negotiation process. He understood what Goliath didn’t, namely, that, when you ask for something in a negotiation, you had better expect the person with whom you are negotiating to ask of you what you are asking of them. When Goliath therefore demanded that David renounce violence, it never expected David to ask the same of Goliath. After all, how can you demand something you aren’t prepared to provide yourself?

Gift #3: Negotiating against yourself

When Goliath asked for his help to address their dilemma, they were actually asking him to negotiate against himself. David understood there is never an obligation to negotiate against yourself.

Gift #4: Know the mindset of those you are dealing with

Finally, because David understood Goliath’s bigotry and white supremacist mindset, he was able to use that bigotry and mindset to persuade Goliath that its argument was flawed.

He did so by relying on values that he knew Goliath respected. In this case, this was loyalty.

Then he showed Goliath that a black man isn’t always dominated by white men. That he did so by relying on Goliath’s illogical premise that no communist or black person could succeed where Goliath couldn’t. It’s therefore always critical really to know and understand the mindset of those with whom you re negotiating.

So, folks, these are the gifts of my story. I hope you enjoyed them and that they’ll be helpful to you as you bring your dreams to life…