How to avoid civil war, Nelson Mandela style

Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk, 1992
Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk, 1992

When Nelson Mandela was imprisoned in South Africa, he read about the philosophy of spiral dynamics — as it is referred to now — as a way to understand the mindsets and values of entire societies. The theories stemmed from the work of New York developmental psychologist Clare Graves in the 1970s.

After Mandela was released from prison, he used the concept to rebuild his country alongside Zulu tribal leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi and President F.W. de Klerk. Together their teams peacefully redesigned economic, political and educational systems and structures. In simplistic terms, the result was a post-apartheid South Africa that did not devolve into civil war.

How does a country that consists of individual factions, often polarized into entrenched camps, avoid splitting violently into pieces? Can divisive issues of race, ethnicity and nationalism ever be relaxed into collaboration?

Inquiring American minds might want to know.

What is spiral dynamics?

The basic idea behind spiral dynamics is that:

1) All individuals and societies have values based on experiences, not genes.

2) We can connect around thinking patterns, rather than skin pigmentation.

3) It is more important to understand how people think than what they think.

4) The way a person thinks can evolve in an almost predictable way.

As American Don Beck, who took dozens of trips to help design post-apartheid South Africa, explained it: “What we’re trying to describe is simply how humans are able, when things get bad enough, to adapt to their situation by creating greater complexities of thinking to handle new problems.”

Beck had done a doctorate in social psychology about the polarization that resulted in the U.S. Civil War. He found eight political positions prior to 1850 that led to two viewpoints — North and South — and found those same worldviews in South Africa. He wanted to apply Graves’ concepts with Mandela’s efforts to try to avoid civil war.

One program developed in the redesign of society involved Middelburg Steel and Alloys, a large mining corporation, and an entrepreneurial system for young black men. Arab-American futurist Elza Maalouf wrote about it, indicating that Bishop Desmond Tutu was brought to tears by the program, seeing “young black men working side by side with white men, engaging with each other as equals and partners.”

Community building across issues of race, class, gender, religion and identity is, of course, complex. Yet the idea is to see the psychological way that people and nations develop as part of a spiral. Our values and actions are based on the times and conditions we are in. There is not a hierarchy of “better.” All are necessary levels, emergent based on circumstances of our lives.

The trick is to transcend and include, not reject, one’s origins and kin.

The concept has eight phases — generally identified by colors in the more official model — that I’ve simplistically outlined (and self-named) here:

  • Survival: reactive, a band of community in search of food, water, warmth
  • Tribal: fierce loyalty to leaders, inclined toward accepting mystery and magic
  • Self-assertive: sometimes ruthless fighting for dominance, impulsive thinking, need to be best
  • Authoritative: in search of stability and the “right” way, sacrificing for future reward
  • Maker: making change in order to grow, strategic, practical
  • Egalitarian: seeking consensus, moving away from materialism and dogmatism
  • Transcendent: reaching flow that accepts chaos and complexity, acceptance of multiple viewpoints
  • Universal Flow: higher awareness of holistic systems and dynamics

What might this mean?

These concepts were discussed at a recent IONS MN monthly meeting at Lake Harriet Spiritual Community. Moderator Dave Perry suggested that one reason the U.S. might be struggling right now is that our “Egalitarian” mindset has tended to reject the makers, the self-assertive and those seeking authority and stability. When any group attempts to move away from the others, it does not work.

“Ultimately, all levels would be in conversation with each other, with some level of acceptance and recognition of validity,” Perry says. Otherwise we are doomed to keep repeating conflicts. (The movie “Groundhog Day” comes to mind. As does the 2016 election.)

If we’re honest, those of us who want to welcome Survival communities who seek to escape conflict in their homelands might need to also accept alternative levels of being in our own country.

Mandela seemed able to help his country be mindful of those in different stages, with teams that helped to connect — not reject.


Mikki Morrissette is the new owner/editor of Minnesota Women’s Press. This is part of her long-standing series that explores how we might build stronger communities.

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