Nelson Mandela: A Historical Case Study of Negotiations

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In the history of humanity, the relations between people, groups, and nations have always been mediated by negotiation and conflict resolution. In their daily lives, people continuously bargain over multiple aspects of life. However, while conventional everyday life conflict resolution might not have significant consequences, political negotiations at the international relations level commonly have significant implications on the overall disposition of powers in the world. Therefore, negotiators’ skills, strategies, and approaches play a pivotal role in establishing functional relationships and conflict resolution. Strong and effective negotiators are capable of leading the negotiating process toward beneficial closure. Nelson Mandela’s unique negotiation style that entailed a combination of collaborative and competitive negotiation strategies allowed him to achieve successful agreements with his opponents when resolving conflicting issues. In this paper, Nelson Mandela’s negotiation approach is assessed and analyzed according to its impact, process and outcome evaluation, used models, application of power, modes, interests, and ethical considerations. The analysis is focused on the general features of the negotiator’s style and the particularities of Mandela’s settlement of the Congolese conflict.

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The Context of the Congolese Conflict

Since the beginning of its political existence, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has been at the center of ongoing conflicts between the external influencers, national leadership, neighboring countries, and the people. The vast resources and the favorable central-African geographical position predetermined the central role of DRC in the political and economic development of the whole continent. Therefore, the power of influence of the West in DRC meant the power to influence the entire continent (Makgetlaneng 2019). The intrusion of Western countries into DRC’s political life by setting their representatives in the countries leadership led to continuous wars for power. The events in the late 1990s were characterized by military instability in the central region of Africa, wars, strikes, and unrest that caused many human losses and impeded the democratic and independent future of DRC and Africa, in general (Makgetlaneng 2019). Nelson Mandela’s administration in South Africa cooperated with the leaders of DRC to regulate the conflict by peaceful means. Mandela encouraged the conflicting national leaders to agree as per the country’s political future without the influence of the external actors. The ultimate resolution of the conflict and the establishment of peace was achieved due to Mandela’s negotiation tactics.

The Impact of Nelson Mandela’s Negotiation

Mandela’s solid moral principles, strong leadership position, and the competent utilization of negotiation tools allowed him to resolve military conflicts using a negotiated settlement. The efforts of this negotiator allowed for eliminating apartheid in Africa. His approach has proclaimed him an outstanding negotiator of the twentieth century due to the significant contribution of Mandela’s negotiation achievements to the democracy of South Africa and the whole continent. The international affairs domain is a complex and multifaceted sphere of human and state interactions that lead to severe consequences and historically important decisions. African people obtained the ability to be represented by a leader who knows and cherishes their needs, values, and rights and addresses them through global affairs diplomacy of a qualitatively new kind (Makgetlaneng 2019). According to Sternlight et al. (2015), Nelson Mandela’s contribution to the history of South Africa is difficult to overestimate since this region became a “beacon of how we hope all conflicts could be resolved” (284). Thus, the negotiation style applied by Mandela has a long-lasting impact on contemporary negotiation practice.

The qualitative change in conflict resolution and fighting for human rights on an international level were obtained through the negotiator’s competence. Indeed, Mandela’s leadership and active participation in negotiations marked the time in Africa’s history when the “human rights, democracy, development, and political governance issues and processes” have become central issues in the discourse of state authorities (Makgetlaneng 2019, 8). The leader’s morality and strong democratic views constituted his primary vision of governance that needed to “cease to treat tyranny, instability, and poverty anywhere on our globe as being peripheral to our interests and our future” (Makgetlaneng 2019, 8). The dispute resolution strategies that combined a clear vision of the outcome, strong leadership positions, guidance by interests, and relationships with counterparts allowed Mandela to gain agreements.

The Application of the Dual Concern Model

The ability of Nelson Mandela to integrate diverse attitudes toward the solution options for a negotiated problem contributed to his strong positions in the bargaining process. Therefore, when analyzing the negotiator’s application of the negotiation model, one might identify the dual concern model. According to this approach, the bargaining process participants combine assertiveness and empathy, which lead to using both conflicting and consolidating means of dispute resolution (Friedman et al. 2020). The dual concern model generates five main negotiation styles, which include “the competing, the collaborating, the compromising, the avoiding, and the accommodating” (Moschou 2020, 8). In his negotiations, Mandela combined collaboration and competitiveness by responding to the opponents’ positions.

As the case of Congolese Conflict resolution demonstrates, Mandela was guided by his personal traits such as strength, commitment and determination, righteousness, human dignity, and commitment to principles (Sternlight et al. 2015). The lack of justice and disrespect toward human dignity was not tolerated by the negotiator, who applied a conflicting dispute resolution style. Indeed, when the tyranny was expanded in African countries, Mandela encouraged sabotage and strikes as the effective tools of competing with the opponents by their own means (Abramson 2016). The strategic thinking and conflict resolution models behind the combination of the two styles (collaboration and competitiveness) were the basis of Mandela’s movements, which claimed that “peace comes only after rights have been achieved” (Sternlight et al. 2015, 287). Thus, the integration of two opposing styles in the dispute resolution model applied by Mandela is validated by the political conditions, features of opponents, and the negotiation process’s overall goals.

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Distributive/Integrative Modes of Negotiation

In accord with the discussion of Nelson Mandela’s integration of collaboration and competitiveness in his negotiation style, the use of both distributive and integrative modes in dispute resolution is also validated by the challenging conditions and the high stake of human rights in Africa. According to Moschou (2020), the integrative mode entails both parties’ openness and willingness to be similarly involved in the conflict resolution to achieve the most beneficial outcomes. In particular, under the rule of the integrative mode of negotiation, the parties create value and are “expected to share information, act openly, cooperatively, creatively, fairly and develop win-win solutions by searching for mutual gain” (Moschou 2020, 20). The appeal of Mandela to peace and respect toward human dignity and DRC’s independence and his striving to minimize human losses and settle military conflicts by peaceful means, as it was in the Congolese Conflict settlement, is the manifestation of the integrative approach. As Fisher, Ury, and Patton (2011) claimed, a win-win strategy can only be maintained and provide positive outcomes when the negotiators prioritize the results of the bargaining and do not compete over their positions.

On the other hand, the distributive mode of negotiation is the opposite approach. When negotiating within a distributive mode, the parties try to “conceal information, exaggerate, argue aggressively, take high opening positions, concede slowly and are willing to outwait the other party” in order to increase the chances of accomplishing their goal and winning (Moschou 2020, 20). Such an approach validates the conflicting style of negotiation and is based on confrontation. One example when Mandela spoke about his willingness to engage in the conflict was at the Rivonia Trial, where he justified violence. He stated that he planned and executed sabotage, not for a reason violence was in his nature but on the basis “of a calm and sober assessment of the political situation, … tyranny, exploitation, and oppression of my people by whites” (Abramson 2016, 25-26). Indeed, as stated by Sternlight et al. (2015), “Mandela advocated sabotage, strikes, protests, and mass demonstrations of the oppressed races to make clear to the National Party and its white adherents that they could not maintain their unjust system” (287). Thus, there was always a rationale behind Mandela’s choice of approach to conflict resolution.

The Implications of Power

Throughout his negotiations, Nelson Mandela communicated and established relationships with numerous leaders. These negotiating efforts were decisive for the people of South Africa and the overall global affairs related to human rights and freedom. The implication of the concept of power allows for identifying the feature that Mandela’s negotiation strategies were primarily set on benefits for the people regardless of how powerful the opposing party is. In the case of the DRC conflict, Mandela claimed that the national leaders negotiate over the national issues disregarding the influential power of the West. From the perspective of the stages of negotiations that start with preparation and end with an agreement, Mandela prioritized the initial step of preparation that helped him identify his opponents’ strengths and weaknesses and outline the persuasive tools and opportunities for influence (Moschou 2020, 20). Therefore, the aspect of power in negotiations was not decisive in Mandela’s approach to dispute resolution.

Relationship and Substantive Interests

Establishing a relationship with the opponent is one of the essential elements of successful negotiation and arriving at an agreement. Despite the opposing views and the multiple challenges surrounding the subjects of Mandela’s disputes, the negotiator paid much attention to the opportunities of winning instead of proving his position. Fisher, Ury, and Patton (2011) emphasize that successful negotiators prioritize relationships over mere personal outcomes. Therefore, Mandela developed functional relationships with his opponents to ensure that effective communication is possible, and the agreement can be achieved. Indeed, in the Congolese conflict settlement, he argued for a reasonable search of the peaceful resolution by appealing to the parties’ rational and strategic thinking. Thus, the primary goal was to focus on substantive interests without compromising and using peaceful means as much as possible.

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Moral Reasoning, Culture, and Ethical Considerations

As mentioned before, Mandela’s personality traits and strong leadership principles were the stepping stones of his negotiation strategy because he did not compromise easily and strived for substantive interests. A high level of morality and ethics in Mandela’s negotiation tactics allowed him to establish strict boundaries and highlight the primary interests and principles that guided his political activity. The reluctance to compromise for a lesser outcome was based on Mandela’s commitment to his principles and the engagement with the ultimate interest that led his leadership activity – democracy in South Africa (Makgetlaneng 2018). Indeed, while imprisoned, Mandela was offered freedom in exchange for compromising his interests in democracy, but he refused to preserve the opportunity to achieve his goal. Culture is another significant aspect of negotiations; at the level of international dispute resolution, cultural differences must be incorporated into the negotiation strategies to ensure mutual understanding and ability to communicate (Brett 2017). In this regard, Mandela prioritized communicating with his opponents in their language to facilitate the opportunities for successful conflict resolution.


In summation, the role of leaders as negotiators is critically important for the states and their history. Nelson Mandela’s negotiation strategy that combines collaboration and competitiveness integrates both integrative and distributive modes and prioritizes preparation and relationship forming with the opponents developed his unique style. Given the core value of moral reasoning, ethical considerations, and cultural sensitivity, the negotiators’ efforts allowed Mandela to achieve agreements successfully and ultimately change Africa’s history by contributing to the peaceful resolution of the conflict in DRC.


Abramson, Hal. 2016. “Nelson Mandela as Negotiator: What Can We Learn from Him.” Ohio State Journal on Dispute Resolution, 31: 19–72

Brett, Jeanne M. 2017. “Culture and Negotiation Strategy”, Journal of Business & Industrial Marketing, 32(4): 1–8.

Fisher, Roger, William L. Ury, and Bruce Patton. 2011. Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving in. Penguin.

Friedman, Raymond A., Robin L. Pinkley, William P. Bottom, Wu Liu, and Michele Gelfand. 2020. “Implicit Theories of Negotiation: Developing a Measure of Agreement Fluidity.” Negotiation and Conflict Management Research, 13(2): 127–150.

Makgetlaneng, Sehlare.2018. “Key Reasons behind Nelson Mandela’s Call for a Negotiated Settlement of the Congolese Conflict and Its Critics.” Insight on Africa, 10(2): 194–214.

Makgetlaneng, Sehlare. 2019. “Mandela’s Call for a Negotiated Settlement of the Congolese Conflict.” The Thinker, 79: 8–18.

Moschou, Evangelia. 2020. “Negotiation Behaviors and Styles, Their Effectiveness and Their Applicability in Commercial Mediation.” PhD diss., International Hellenic University.

Sternlight, Jean R., Andrea Schneider, Carrie Menkel-Meadow, Robert Mnookin, Richard Goldstone, and Penelope Andrews. 2015. “Making Peace with Your Enemy: Nelson Mandela and His Contributions to Conflict Resolution.” Nevada Law Journal, 16: 281–312.

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DemoEssays. "Nelson Mandela: A Historical Case Study of Negotiations." June 7, 2022.