Mandela and Me – a retrospective

Mandela and Me – to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the great man’s birth

I stood in the buffet queue, excited that soon we would meet the great President Nelson Mandela. It was a meeting of the World Economic Forum in Cape Town, South Africa, I think it was in 1995.

Now the World Economic Forum is for big shots, but I got there anyhow because I was and still am interested in all things African.  After all, I’d lived in West Africa, I’d become conscious of the evils of Apartheid through the protests of Peter Hain when I was forced to cancel going to a rugby game because of the cause Hain espoused – for a Welshman, this is a serious matter.  I don’t mean to be flippant but it is important to note that during the third quarter of the twentieth century despite Sharpville, Verwoed, the Rovinia trials, most of us ordinary men and women were not really conscious of the evils of apartheid.  Young Hain was to many cricket and rugby followers a pain in the butt.

For the man in the street, it was easy to argue that sporting ties and business investment were the best ways to build bridges, the arguments went on and on.  For Dai Jones or Henry Higgins, the games must go on – damn nuisance these long-haired liberals spoiling the pitches at  Cardiff Arms Park or Lord’s cricket ground.

The arguments were rooted in the right – build bridges, and the left – sanctions and economic and political pressure. I guess I was, and still am, a wavering Welsh liberal, wobbling badly and missing the Springboks.

My time in West Africa was a difficult one as the head of a young family in the melting pot that is Nigeria.  Despite all the anguish and laughter of that period I always felt slightly ashamed of being there, doing a job that could easily have been done by a Nigerian.  The post-colonial patronage was insufferable and I became forever convinced that racism was sustained and encouraged by postcolonial Britain and Western vested business interests.

Time moved on and in the late eighties, I was offered the job as Regional Director for my company’s subsidiaries in Africa.  Our biggest interests were in South Africa where we were much involved in supplying the mining industry.  I had already been involved there but not with the authority that now was mine.

The mining business, coal, gold and other minerals is a hard theatre, not for the weak.  I had routinely visited the deepest mines, over a mile down and half a mile or more from the shaft bottom, in seams not much higher than your dining table, the temperatures were up to 48 degrees centigrade and the humidity over ninety percent. It was a tough place to work; with loss of life a fairly common event.  My company supplied strata support materials and we worked hard with our R & D and other partners to produce products which improved safety and productivity.  During those years I was always uncomfortable with the way that the African Miners were treated; low pay, and impossible social conditions not to mention the dangers at the coal or ore face.

So when my promotion came, I did think long and hard about accepting the post,  True my ambition was probably a great driver, but it came down to the old argument; would turning down the job do any good?  Could I do more good in the job than on the sidelines?

For the next eighteen years, South Africa was my key interest.  We employed more people here than in any of my other companies, over eight hundred souls, mainly shift workers drawn from the Xhosa and Zulu tribal groups.  All the supervision when I started in the company was white. Many of the managers and salespeople denigrated the blacks at every possible opportunity.

Apartheid was built into the business, to complicate things further the businesses never made a penny, though the research benefits of working in such difficult conditions were immeasurable for like businesses around the world.  Further, the business climate was corrupt and the white management by and large self-satisfied and smug. A challenge then!

I like to think my team made changes, positive changes; sweeping changes of management, the introduction of black supervision and management, improvements to working conditions and much better labour relations. We did all these things in a very hostile business environment, with very aggressive local competitors who thought nothing of stealing intellectual property rights or for that matter spreading inaccuracies and lies about our company.  I was, we were, under pressure too from our parent company as profits staggered around breakeven at best.

I made it my business during these years to learn more about Africa its business and its culture and attended many World Economic Forum meetings particularly concerned with African business affairs. My Boss in the UK was very supportive.

As the eighties came to a close, I was very much aware of the calamitous state of affairs in the Republic, the cause of Mandela was blazoned across the world’s press; meanwhile, labour relations were at an all-time low with individual companies struggling with miserable returns and ever declining productivity. The average worker looked forward to the great revolution when the white man would, at last, be put in his place. In the mines, the hard Afrikaner mentality ruled, elsewhere in both black and white business communities there was a real impetus for change and a variety of wildly differing expectations.  The WEF was central to international business response. it was a question of hanging on through the chaos and supporting the changes we all hoped were imminent.

In the WEF I was fortunate to meet leaders of business and politics, make contact with the ANC youth and discuss the importance of business to the newly emerging democracy that was now surer every day.  There were many powerful business leaders including Nicki Oppenheimer, Clem Santer who were in the forefront of the drive for change, then there was Cyril Rhamanposa who was a beacon of progressive light from the aspect of Black business and entrepreneurship, there were many others, pillars of the movement to change, all looking forward with imagination and goodwill towards the now inevitable changing scene.

President De Klerk, who eventually shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Nelson Mandela, was at worst a brilliant pragmatist and at best a brave and visionary politician.  I like to think the latter, did he bow to the inevitable or perhaps drive positively the unbelievably difficult task of wresting power from the Nationalist Party and handing it over to the ANC.

Charles Schwab head of the WEF as always with almost missionary zeal mobilized international business with guile and enthusiasm.

The scene was set and in1990 the world changed, but how it changed.  There walked upon this earth a man of such magnanimity and generosity of spirit as was beyond anyone’s imagination. Nelson Mandela.

On my way to South Africa aware of what was about to happen, I was seated next to Jeremy Paxman of the BBC who spent little time before berating me for doing a job in South Africa entirely prejudiced and unaware of how much goodwill had been put into the changes going on in those momentous times.  In retrospect, I’m by and large proud of what we did, we kept going, producing goods, generating wages and preventing mass unemployment.  Certainly, there was a lot of enlightened self-interest but there was a great deal of genuine good will and real sacrifice for the promise of what was to come.

We had heard about him, we had read about him but now we could see and hear him.  However we were not prepared for the real Nelson Mandela; wise, shrewd, charming, kind and simply good; unbelievably good.  A saint to all believers; a redeemer of political miscreants and a forgiver of sin.  Madiba (his clan name) – father to a nation.

In ’94 expectations were high, President Mandela acceded to power.  His task gargantuan, he needed to change a nation and he set forth to do so.  History will say he did, he did create massive change. Some will argue that he did not deliver the change that the rank and file South African expected.  What is beyond doubt is that he and his fabulous team including the irrepressible Bishop Tutu led a bloodless coup, he created a chance for a new South Africa. His message was and is simple; Forgive the past and build a future- so simple, so demanding, and so profound.

And so to the buffet queue in 1995, it is lunchtime there are a few delegates from the WEF and several pressmen.  I know many of the delegates and I am chatting to my friends, one hand on my plate and choosing from the sumptuous buffet.  There is someone tall next to me in the queue, I turn, I look up and I am looking into the eyes of President Nelson Mandela.  I am lost for words.

“Mr. President,” I stammer, “Please go ahead.” I stand back.

“No, you were here before me, go ahead.”  He hits me with a wide smile.

I am still befuddled, what to say?  Should I insist he goes first, what can I say? I cannot shake hands because I am holding my dinner plate and knife fork and spoon.

“Sir,” I stutter some more, “It is a great honour to meet you.”  I make a mess of gathering the cold meats.

“It is very good to meet you.” Says The President .

We fill our plates I am anxious not to drop my food on the floor, we begin to chat, he wants to know who I am and where I ’m from.  Within minutes we are surrounded by pressmen and admirers.  My private moment with Nelson Mandela is passed.

There is a kafuffle at the entrance to the dining room. President Mugabe enters with a phalanx of security men; his food is delivered on four separate plates to a side room.  The food is tasted by his bodyguard the door is closed, I assume Mugabe has his lunch.

In the meantime, Mandel is chatting to delegates, as is Thabo Mbeki.  Mbeki is quiet, shy almost, he speaks very quietly.  He is a very neat man, his beard grey and trimmed, his suite sharp as can be, his shoes polished mirror-like.  He is very engaging articulate and obviously very bright.  There are other heads of state there from the so-called frontline states, including Namibia, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Botswana.  All the heads of state seem relaxed except of course for Zimbabwe’s President; locked up with his security guys.

The meeting is called to order Charles Schwab is at his avuncular best.  The room is quite informal with the heads of state gathered on settees and easy chairs on the stage and the delegates and press assembled in front of them.

Mandela speaks, he has no notes, he speaks of the future and how much a strong economy matters.  He is intelligent he does not dwell on the past at all. When he has finished, a notable ‘talk’ of fifty minutes without a note, he asks for questions.  The press bombard him with questions about his prisoner years – he ignores them all and states quietly but with absolute authority, “We must come together, no matter what the past.  We must come together for our children’s sake, we must reconcile, forgive and look to the future to build a South Africa where there is an opportunity for all.”  His words are final.  He sits and invites Thabo Mbeki to say a few words.

Mbeki chooses to talk about reconciliation.  He does so with quiet dignity, he talks from his heart and he asks,

“I want to know where my sister’s partner’s remains are, so we can bury my dead comrade and begin to forgive the past.  He went out one evening six years ago, to get some food, he was an activist for the youth wing of the ANC, we have not seen him since We want to forgive but we must reconcile and be at peace and allowed to bury our dead, then we will be, and only then can we be, reconciled.  The truth and reconciliation commission is not an institution, it is the only instrument to stop our nation’s heart from bleeding.”

I have never been so moved in a public place, everyone there, hardened journalist or seasoned business person wept.  There was a silence and then the other Heads of State took to the stage.  I do not remember a word any of them said.

When Mandela and Mbeki left they shook hands with us all, the President once more looked into my eyes and said, “It was very nice to meet you, thank you for supporting us.”

I was not composed or worthy enough to reply, and he was gone.

Years have passed and Mandela is no longer with us, Mbeki started well but made mistakes and then Jacob Zuma has been subsumed by corruption and incompetence.

But it is a new day, forgive the past and build the future. Cyril Rhamanposa now presides, we wish him well.

Thank you Madiba.

 

 

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