In his welcome note for the 16th Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture, Professor Njabulo Ndebele used a powerful anecdote to project how the celebrated statesman had fears like any other human being but managed them in them craftfully to hide them when necessary and exposed them most appropriately.
In paving the way for the key note speaker, Barack Obama, Ndebele said few managing the 1994 transition was a highly complex affair.
“In a racially polarised society, where political friends or enemies were frighteningly easy to identify by skin colour, few South Africans were aware just how Nelson Mandela’s release represented in unique and unexpected ways the complex art of the possible. It required that he take enormous personal risks to lay foundations for a negotiated end to over three centuries of racist, economic, and social oppression in South Africa.
“He had to find a way of cutting across embedded histories, structures of governing, and the human attitudes they gave life to. He had to find a way for South Africans to begin to see one another differently. It was a task that required a particular kind of leader.”
Ndebele said one powerful anecdote that captures Mandela’s leadership skills comes from Richard Stengel, who collaborated in the writing of the autobiography Long Walk to Freedom.
Stengel, reports Ndebel noted that:
“’We were once on this airplane flight down in Natal, and it was a prop plane. I think there were six seats in it, and there were maybe four of us on the plane. And as soon as he gets on an airplane he (Madiba) picks up a newspaper. He adores newspapers. He didn’t have them for so many years and he revels in the touch of them, and he reads every stupid story. And so we were sitting on the airplane, the plane was up, and he is reading his newspaper, and we’re about, I don’t know, halfway there … I was sitting right across from him, and he pointed out the window … and I saw, to my great horror, that the propeller had stopped going around. And he said very, very calmly, ‘Richard, you might want to inform the pilot that the propeller isn’t working.’ I said, ‘Yes, Madiba.’ I walked to the front of the plane, and the pilot was well aware of it and he said, ‘Go back and sit down. We’ve called the airport. They have the ambulances out there, and they’re going to coat the runway with foam or whatever they do.’
“‘I went back and I told Madiba that, and he just, in that very solemn way, mouth sort of down, listened, and said, ‘Yes.’ And then picked up his newspaper and started reading. I was terrified, and the way I calmed myself was I looked at him. And he was as calm as could be. Like the prisoners on Robben Island must have looked at him when they felt scared, and he just looked as calm as could be”.
Ndebele observes that “the plane landed safely while Madiba retained his calm, unflustered expression all the way as they stepped off the plane. But when they entered the airport, Madiba took advantage of a quiet moment with Stengel to make an unexpected confession: ‘Man, I was scared up there.’ ”
“Madiba was able to put up the amour of self composure to mask the turmoil of fear and uncertainty churning inside of him. The best part by far is in his honesty to give words to his fears at the appropriate moment. There is a grandeur to it.”
Ndebele adds that the story displays something else about Madiba. “It shows up Madiba the politician and Madiba the actor. He could enter the universe of all those he met: each and everyone of them, at home and everywhere in the world and be remembered universally for the genuineness of that moment. The actor in him was able to remove from the politician any semblance of guile: at the same time as the politician gave to the actor the enablement of power to effect change.
“In him we could see an intriguing coexistence of power and beauty. It is a coexistence of attributes that he bequeathed us in the hope that twenty-four years after the birth of our constitutional democracy we would be more powerful and more beautiful.”