“Please take your seats promptly after the coffee break” said the organiser at KPMG’s International Partners’ Conference in Cape Town in 1999. “We have a special guest”. Twenty minutes later the 150 or so of us at the conference watched Nelson Mandela, then approaching his eightieth birthday, walk slowly down the catwalk past us all and to the lectern in the centre. He carefully and deliberately read a prepared speech telling us how important it was for the city to be able to welcome such a distinguished group of international business leaders. It was a predictable address and I felt a little disappointed. “And finally…” he said as he folded up the paper from which he had been reading for ten minutes.
There then followed an unscripted and fascinating twenty minutes when he spoke of the ANC’s accession to power in a democratic South Africa and how easy it would have been to settle old scores and seek bloody retribution for the years of racial oppression. The audience, me included, was utterly captivated by the story of the black members of the parliament who had been brought up and educated in deprived circumstances in the townships and who now, under Mandela’s leadership, wanted to better the lives of those who had elected them not through revenge but through reconciliation. As he left the hall, many of us reached to touch his outstretched hand in a manner almost biblical in its effect. My mind went back to my first visit to South Africa and the time when I was running a seminar with a group of senior executives and using a flip chart trying to capture on it the qualities of a leader. “We have a president who knows a bit about leadership” said a senior white member of the audience: “Write the word ‘compassion’ on your chart and read ‘The Long Walk to Freedom’”. I did both and as recently as last week recommended to someone visiting the country for the first time that she should also read that book to understand the nature and history of the country and the legacy of the man who has just died.
Since that first visit to the country almost twenty years ago, I have visited Robben Island, walked the streets of black townships and pondered why the country did not succumb to the rule of a despot, tyrant or demagogue as many others on the continent have when they gained their ‘freedom’. Much of this was attributable to Mandela who, as some of you reading may know, was offered his freedom some years before he finally walked from prison, by the then president PW Botha, but only on condition that he renounce the ANC and his political ambitions. He replied: “Only free men can negotiate”, refused the offer and stayed in prison. A few years later he himself became the most powerful person in his country but what we will all remember about him is how he chose to use his power.
I once heard a very eminent American consultant who I was working with say to a client “We can’t change history but we can learn from it”. I think that Mandela learned from history that his objective of unity would be best served by adopting the principles of forgiveness and reconciliation and not by repeating the injustices of the past. We all know that principles are not negotiable. So when the free man did come to negotiate, he was driven by principle and used his power to move towards his goal of a free, democratic and unified country and he turned himself and his supporters away from the temptations of revenge which he said to our conference would have been “the easy thing to do”. So it is that today, in the hours after he has died, many around the world remember a remarkable man, his principles and how he chose to use his power for good. One of the many lessons of his legacy for all of us is that when we identify that we have power, we should then examine our goals – and that may mean searching our hearts – before we decide how that power can best be used.