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Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela: A Human Greater Than His Myth

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I am thinking this evening of my friends and colleagues in South Africa. When I was last in Johannesburg in June, Nelson Mandela was in hospital. There was a great deal of discussion about the moment that has now arrived. The passing of a remarkable man who truly is the father of modern South Africa. We all have a great deal to learn from his life. I am pleased to share a remembrance written by my colleague and our chair of Africa, Francois Baird.

– Matthew Harrington

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela: Born on July 18, 1918 in Mvezo, Transkei, South Africa and died on December 5, 2013.

Nelson Mandela is indisputably Africa’s greatest, most famous icon. His transformation from Xhosa aristocrat in the rural Transkei to big city lawyer in Johannesburg and then to liberation struggle leader, incarcerated political prisoner, president of his country, Nobel Peace Prize winner and  conscience of the world is a matter of public record. However, the intangible Mandela, the man himself, was even more impressive than his achievements and fame in public life. He is one of a small number of icons in history where the person was greater than the myths about him.

The first time I met President Mandela in person was in the months after his release from prison, when he addressed a meeting of business people in Johannesburg as the African National Congress (ANC) leader. This was no ordinary formal business dinner because when he arrived, he made the time to move from table to table to shake hands and speak to each of us and crack jokes and put us at ease in that special graceful manner that was his trademark; it not only seemed as if he had all the time in the world for us, but as if he knew who we were. He stripped a large room of hard-bitten business people of their prejudices and presumption in fifteen minutes, before even making a speech!

This is what struck me at that dinner and on the few other occasions when  I was privileged enough to observe him in person; after 27 years of incarceration he did not focus on himself, but on those around him. He may have been cut of from the world, separated from his loved ones, but he was more comfortable in his humanity than most people. He seemed genuinely to enjoy people, and knew how to connect with people as individuals.

Over time, his personal qualities shone through even more impressively.

We worked with Unilever (disclosure: Edelman client) to help establish the Nelson Mandela Scholarships, which are today amongst the most prestigious scholarships available for South Africans. President Mandela insisted that he wanted to meet the Mandela Scholars personally. In the early years, they met him at his personal residence in, Johannesburg. There I saw confident, sometimes even over-confident, and always very impressive students glow like little children in his presence. Often, some of them would burst into tears when they met him. Never did he preach to them, or harangue them in the imperious manner so often displayed by famous leaders of lesser quality. Instead, he would ask about them, where they were from, about their parents and siblings and dreams and then he would speak to them about their achievements and responsibilities. This was in a manner so direct and simple and effective that they walked out of there inspired to contribute and take responsibility for others and for the future. President Mandela may have been a brilliant speaker, but he inspired without words.

President Mandela did not demand excellence; he simply showed us how to be excellent. The 1995 Rugby World Cup became the Mandela World Cup in many respects; those who have seen the movie Invictus, will realize the extent to which President Mandela’s personal leadership played a role in the success of South Africa’s first appearance on the world stage. Those of us lucky enough to be involved in Rugby World Cup ’95 understood something else; our President did not care to use the World Cup for purposes of his own fame but for our purposes as a people, so that he could help us all understand what we could be as South Africans. When he wore the number 6 Springbok jersey (the jersey of our team captain) it was not about Mandela the captain of South Africa, but to support the team of South Africa, and to identify with the supporters. And when our team won the World Cup, he showed us how to celebrate with joy and with grace and to recognize the team for its achievement, but also to be inspired by their win to become more excellent as citizens, closer to each other.

President Mandela was by no means a perfect man, but he was an excellent man. Over the years, this excellence shone through in personal encounters, in the stories told by those who were really close to him and finally, in the way he conducted the last chapter of his life.

Those of us who had been lucky enough to have met him in person and to have observed his conduct at close quarters must bear witness to who he was and not only what he represented. By learning more about Mandela the person, we could ourselves try to live like Mandela and thereby honor his life instead of merely recalling the fame of Africa’s icon. Nelson Mandela did not dwell in his fame. He was a man, a human greater than his myth.

As we mourn his passing, we all owe him to try to live better lives. His greatest monument would be if we could live like Mandela.

Francois Baird is Edelman’s chair of Africa and is based in Johannesburg, South Africa and Washington D.C..

Image by South Africa The Good News.
  • Zing Shaw

    Thank you for writing this post. At this particular moment, it is hard for me to articulate the way that I feel about Mandela’s passing. Words cannot accurately capture the deep emotions that are running through me. He was one of the greatest people to share this planet with us in our lifetime. A man of great character and strength who fought against injustice, and won. Gone but never forgotten.

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