Thorvald Stoltenberg (1931-2018) was a prominent and loved Norwegian politician. He passed away last Friday after a brief illness. In his early working life, he was active in assistance to refugees, including from Hungary after the 1956 invasion by the Soviet Union. He was a key member of the United Nations peace negotiating teams as a diplomat and politician on the Balkans in the 1990s. He was for a short year high commissioner for refugees in 1990, but Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland called him back to serve as Norway’s foreign minister again; and he had earlier served both as deputy and full minister of foreign affairs and defence. When he retired from politics, he could see his son Jens Stoltenberg become prime minister, and some years ago, secretary general of NATO. Thorvald Stoltenberg was for many years chairman of the Norwegian Red Cross. His two other children were Camilla, a medical researcher and administrator, and Nini, a lawyer by training, like her father, but a victim of the liberal ‘hashish and heroin era’ of the 1970s. She passed away in 2014 at an age of 51, just two years after her mother Karin Stoltenberg (nèe Heiberg) passed away, leaving Thirvald Stoltenberg without his lifelong partner. “Nini was the kindest and sweetest person one could imagine”, the father said of her many times, and he recently also wrote a book about her, in his quest to try to understand why she had become a drug addict, and how others could be prevented from the same fate. By the time she died, she was ‘clean’, but the heroin and other poisons had taken their toll on her organs and she just wasted away and died after a short illness.

But this was not meant only to be a column about Thorvald Stoltenberg. Rather, it was meant also to be about an even more iconic politician worldwide, Nelson Mandela, whose 100th birth anniversary we celebrated yesterday. Mandela was a model human being in many ways, a symbol of hope and humanism, a type of politician and statesman that we rarely see. He based much of his thinking on his training and experience as a lawyer, with justice and fairness as cornerstones, My Pakistani lawyer friend Idrees Ashraf underlines the importance of his legal training and practice, also continuing studies while in prison. Certainly, Mandela was a very unique and extraordinary man, yet also a very ordinary man, somebody who had met him told me.

There are some similarities between the two men, Stoltenberg and Mandela; they were not faultless but had the unique ability to connect with people and make people feel they were important, also important to them. They would encourage people to go out in the world and do good; take part in important causes, indeed local and everyday things as well as universal issues.

I don’t think any of the two leaders would bother much about details. But they had some broad road map for where to go, and how to reach there, being practical and pragmatic, without stepping to hard on others. Mandela never denounced the use of violence in the struggle for justice in apartheid South Africa, or as a general principle, although he drew lessons from Mahatma Ghandi’s philosophy; yet, he rather said that those in power should refrain from use of violence. Soltenberg, who i.a. served as minister of defence in Norway, was also not a pacifist.

In 1990, soon after Nelson Mandela was released from his 27-year prison term on Robben Island and other prisons under apartheid South Africa, he travelled to Geneva. That time Thorvald Stoltenberg worked there, and he invited Nelson Mandela to an informal breakfast at home. In 1992, Nelson Mandela came to Oslo at a time when Stoltenberg was the Norwegian minister of foreign affairs. When the programme was prepared, Mandela wondered if Stoltenberg had stopped hosting his breakfast meetings around his kitchen table. Quickly, the programme was revised, and a two-hour breakfast meeting included. The men had ample time for both business and private talk, exactly what Mandela and Stoltenberg liked. They both wanted to know the real person behind the public persona, and both wanted others to know who they were. About Stoltenberg it was said that he knew everyone around him, and he addressed them by first name, simply because he actually knew them. True, there may have been some control and power play about it, but mostly, it was genuine and real. Besides, their interest in people was based on moral values, on humanism rather than religion or ideology.

The wisdom in some of Nelson Mandela’s quotes can underline this: “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.” He also said: “A good head and a good heart are always a formidable combination.”

What was so important in Mandela’s thinking – and in Stoltenberg’s – was the ability to be concerned about people’s everyday life first, then politics. They realized that in order to touch people’s hearts and minds, it was always required to show respect and be concerned about people the way they are. The little things had to be changed, too, not only the big things, which might only happen in a distant future. Yet, they didn’t shy away from dreams and visions either.

I believe that great politicians, and ordinary people, like those I write about today, realize that politics is indeed about individuals first – more than political parties, left and right, structural issues and broad theories. Politics is about basic values of how to help each other so that life gets better now and in future. Mandela and Stoltenberg would emphasise that it is always about solidarity and love for those who have less, the human rights for those who have been pushed aside or fallen on the roadside – blacks in South Africa under apartheid, and blacks and whites today, and about poor people everywhere in the capitalist world we live in, indeed in rich countries where there are enough resources to go around so everyone can live well. They would give faces to AIDS victims, as Mandela did when his son died from it and it was still seen as shameful to say it; or substance abusers, as Stoltenberg’s daughter Nini. Many people suffer and have difficulties due to no fault of their own. Nelson Mandela said: “As long as poverty, injustice and gross injustice persist in our world, none of us can truly rest.”

The two men I am writing about today became who they were because of their interaction with others, including early childhood and youth experiences, education, political training, getting exposure and gaining awareness at work, yes, in prison, and so on. Mandela spoke about all he had learnt from his fellow prisoners, at least during the 18 of the 27 years when he was allowed to interact with other prisoners.

Nelson Mandela and Thorvald Stoltenberg built on the traditions of universal humanism as a foundation for their moral and ethical standards, and through that, their pragmatic political views. Religion was not prominent, but the principles and values were as high as those found in religions. Mandela worked closely with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who was also building on humanism as well as dogma, and so did Mandela’s partner in his law firm in the 1950s and ‘comrade in arms’, Oliver Tambo (1917-1993).

In another article, I would like to discuss and reflect more upon the people that influenced Nelson Mandela in his younger age, in his formative years and as a student and lawyer, while he was in prison, yes, the many facets of his life during “A Long Walk to Freedom”, the title of his autobiography, published in 1994. Furthermore, we should also reflect on the importance of those nearest to him, his wives, children and grandchildren, indeed the role of Winnie Madikizela Mandela (1936-2018), without whom he may not have reached the heights he did, yes, in spite of the controversies surrounding her in part of her life. On that note, I would also like to suggest that without Karin Stoltenberg, Thorvald Stoltenberg’s lifelong partner, he may not have reached as far as he did and be the good man he was, and not without his children, indeed his daughter Nini.


The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist with experience in research, diplomacy and development aid.