Bloomberg View: From the opposition – What Trump can learn from Mandela

By Mohamed A. El-Erian

(Bloomberg View) – In stating on Friday that Republicans are “going through the inevitable growing pains of being an opposition party to becoming a governing party,” House Speaker Paul Ryan was identifying a phenomenon that has challenged many new governments around the world – and tripped up quite a few.

It constitutes a test for President Donald Trump, along with members of his team who have no prior public-sector experience, and the elites who lead Republican lawmakers in Congress and at the state level. Their success making the adjustment from politics to administration will have important economic, financial, institutional, political and social implications.

Lord Commander Trump Decapitates the Establishment Republicans. This image of a headless GOP elephant in from of the U.S. Capitol was adapted from Creative Commons licensed photos from Brian Ralph’s, Kai Schreiber’s, and Kacka a Ondra’s Flickr photostreams.

To those of us who have been interested in political transitions around the globe, what is taking place in the U.S. can be reminiscent of a more general phenomenon that has repeatedly played out in the developing world. In particular, it’s one that has hit hard in countries seeking to pivot away from colonial rule – especially those where freedom fighters, invigorated by their triumph over the evil of deeply embedded discrimination, struggled and failed to deliver on their promise of social justice and more inclusive growth.

South Africa’s Nelson Mandela is, in my opinion, the best modern example of a leader who understood the hardest complexities of the transition from opposition to governing. In leading his country away from many years of repressive apartheid rule, one of his first challenges was to equip his new government with the ability to govern effectively, secure early wins and sell to his citizens a vision that helped protect against unanticipated internal and external shocks.

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela

From day one, Mandela looked past the senior set of likely government appointments and quickly developed and trained a new cadre of junior technocrats. He resisted the temptation to dismantle laws and institutions until credible alternatives had been designed and discussed. He set up a “truth and reconciliation” process that provided a basis for assessing the damage incurred during long decades of repressive minority rule, and thereby contained harmful blame games. And, in one of the most remarkable examples of leadership and vision, he urged South Africans to live under the mantra of “forgiving but not forgetting.” (In today’s verbiage, he understood the need to work with the establishment even when the stated objective was to dismantle it.)

In doing all this, Mandela secured an important mix of coalitions among new and old that enabled his country to undertake an historical pivot without the violence and disruptions that crippled many other post-colonial transitions. He developed public-private partnerships to supplement meager government resources and to counter the flight of capital and talent out of the country. And he worked hard – though, as subsequent developments (including today’s crippling corruption and the incomplete corporate embrace of diversity) would prove, far from perfectly – on succession planning to ensure that the initial gains would serve as foundation for more important ones down the road.

As they draw lessons from their defeat, Trump and Ryan would be well advised to take note of some of the lessons from Mandela’s remarkable government experience – and this notwithstanding the very different circumstances of the U.S. For example:

Paul Ryan – Speaker of the House

Reconciliation, rather than finger pointing, needs to guide crisis management and communication. The effort cannot be limited to just engaging the anti-establishment wing of the Republican Party that went rogue on the health-care bill. Success will require making room for elements of the Democratic Party. Better preparation, sequencing, communication and buy-in will be key to ensuring that other elements of the Republican legislative agenda, including tax reform, do not suffer a similar fate.

Ironically, the Trump administration doesn’t have as much time as one would think, given that it has only been in office for two months. It needs to move quickly to extend the federal debt ceiling lest normal government operations be disrupted. Significant progress on tax reform, infrastructure and the budget needs to be secured before lawmakers’ attention turns to the mid-term elections of 2018. It must be careful not to spook financial markets that, having given it the benefit of the doubt, have decoupled prices from fundamentals. And it must convince the rest of the world, including worried allies and mischievous others, that its international efforts will not fall victim to the quick return of domestic political dysfunction.

  • This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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