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The world has seen many successful revolutionaries who have led their people from subjection and brutality into liberation and freedom. Nelson Mandela did this for black South Africans with extraordinary elan, but it was not his greatest accomplishment.

And the world has seen a number of sound economic leaders who have taken deeply troubled post-colonial countries from bankruptcy and poverty and delivered them into stability and economic growth. Nelson Mandela also did this, turning South Africa into a flawed but stable economic power and creating half a decade of vital economic development. But this by itself did not make him exceptional.

Rather, the crucial lesson in Mr. Mandela's life lay in his ability to combine the two: He led a radical movement to oust the racist and authoritarian regime that governed South Africa, succeeded without bloodshed, and then became a sound manager of a major economy who delivered investment, growth, fiscal stability and international trade to this formerly moribund and collapsing economy. And he did so without alienating the majority of his radical followers or creating a dangerous factional struggle within his movement.

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It was his ability to change that made him unique. This transformation from radical idealist revolutionary into pragmatic realist manager, without alienating and losing your following or falling into corruption and mismanagement, is almost impossible to pull off successfully – I would count Brazil's Fernando Henrique Cardoso as the only other successful modern example (some would also cite George Washington).

This ability to change is what we most need to study in Mr. Mandela. He recognized it as his greatest challenge: "When I walked out of prison, that was my mission, to liberate the oppressed and the oppressor both… But I have discovered the secret," he wrote in his 1994 autobiography, "that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are more hills to climb."

The moment when he decided to climb that next hill – the period between his release from prison in 1990 and his election to the presidency in 1994 – is too often neglected in tributes to Mr. Mandela. It was, in many ways, the crucial moment in his career. While he had been grotesquely demonized by many Westerners (including Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan) as a terrorist and a communist, those charges were not groundless: During his 27 years in prison, he insisted continually that the ANC's struggle required forms of guerrilla violence that most governments would classify as terrorism, and he never criticized the ANC's embrace of authoritarian economics. He did not give up these stances upon release from prison (but made it known, in diplomatic conversations, that these were bargaining chips rather than governing programs).

Social justice, he quickly realized, could not be delivered without a sound economy to support it. And South Africa's post-apartheid economy was in calamitous shape: Annual budget deficits of almost 9 per cent of GDP plus a serious current-account deficit had led to a situation where debt service and current-account costs ate up 92 per cent of all government revenue. There was no money to invest in anything. Economic growth had fallen by 2.1 per cent in 1992, GDP had shrunk by almost 2 per cent between 1990 and 1993, and as a result employment had fallen by 350,000 – and millions more young South Africans were about to enter the depressed labour market. And on top of that, he realized that major aid donors were wary of spending much-needed development money on South Africa out of fear that the ANC would repeat the pattern of other post-colonial governments that had squandered billions on authoritarian, nationalist Marxist economic plans that left countries in ruin.

"Mindful of the need to convince foreign and local investors about the government's determination to pursue fiscal discipline and sound economic management," biographer Martin Meredith wrote about this period, "Mandela stuck to a cautious and conservative approach to economic policy."

A big part of this was persuading the ANC rank and file – a great many of whom, if not most, considered themselves orthodox Marxists – that this distinctly non-radical economic policy was in the interests of their larger desire for empowerment and social justice.

"The government literally does not have the money to meet the demands that are being advanced," he told his party's radical branch in a 1995 speech to parliament, in response to their anger "Mass action of any kind will not create resources that the government does not have. All of us must rid ourselves of the wrong notion that the government has a big bag full of money. The government does not have such riches. We must rid ourselves of the culture of entitlement which leads to the expectation that the government must promptly deliver whatever it is that we demand."

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To a surprising degree, this message of cold sobriety worked: His party did not fissure in two; civil war did not break out; the economy became sound.

Alec Russell, a Financial Times writer who covered both the post-communist transitions of eastern Europe and the post-prison Mandela years in South Africa, was shocked at the contrast: Under Mr. Mandela, while there remained severe poverty and inequality, the country and its economy did not spiral into chaos and acrimony. "The ANC has proved a reliable steward of sub-Saharan Africa's largest economy, embracing orthodox fiscal and monetary policies and handling the nation's finances far more steadily than the Afrikaner Nationalists in the last years of apartheid." Between 2004 and 2007, South Africa saw an average of 5 per cent annual economic growth. It was a return to normal. The ANC supporters were not all happy, but they stuck behind the program.

Here is the crucial lesson of Mr. Mandela for modern politicians: The principled, successful leader is the one who betrays his party members for the larger interests of the nation. When one has to decide between the rank-and-file and the greater good, the party should never come first.

This is not to say that Mr. Mandela was a flawless political leader: He was in many ways deeply flawed, and if he had stayed in office for more than one term, those flaws might have overshadowed any gains. He was tragically loyal to underperforming and corrupt cabinet ministers (he only ever sacked one minister). He was too willing to seek favour from authoritarian countries, including Libya and Cuba, that had helped the ANC in its radical years. He was not free from corruption – in 1996, he was personally implicated in a classic fundraising scandal in which a casino magnate gave a big donation to the ANC to free himself from bribery charges. And he was far too slow to distance himself from Winnie Mandela, his deeply and criminally corrupt wife.

But these were overshadowed by his larger accomplishment: Squaring the circle between revolution and civic life. He ended his five-year presidency by sealing this transformation with three crucial actions:

First, he fiercely maintained the independence of the media, the justice system and the public service. Because of this, even as the ANC became corrupt and fragmented during the years that followed, South Africa remained a country with a sustainable economy and some potential for development.

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Second, he put in place a constitution that became a model for the world. To do this, he had to betray his nominal partnership with former Apartheid leader P.W. Botha (who wanted a permanent guarantee of black-white power sharing, and ended the relationship when Mr. Mandela rightly refused him), and to ignore the interests of ANC radicals. This became apparent in 2006, when the Constitutional Court legalized same-sex marriage in South Africa, on constitutional grounds and against the loud protests of ANC figures. The constitution placed fundamental values ahead of partisan interest, and it held.

And finally, crucially, he stepped down after one term of office. Many wished he would have stayed longer, and South Africa's economy may have been stronger for it. But in handing over the leadership reins without favouring a son or a loyalist as a successor, he set a vital precedent. One only needs look north to Zimbabwe to see what usually happens when revolutionaries become governing presidents. In avoiding that fate, Nelson Mandela saved South Africa from becoming another post-colonial disaster, and showed the world how leaders can successfully change.

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