DOD’s blog: The day I met Nelson Mandela

Lessons for leaders in the workplace.

Today’s blog is going to be much longer than usual, and it is not on benefits.

Instead it is a true story that happened to me in the mid-1990s but has lessons for all in senior roles in organisations.

I am a born and bred South African and in the four years before moving to the UK in 1998 I worked as a journalist for one of the biggest publishing houses in Africa, then called Nasionale Pers (English translation: National Press).

It is a very different company now and even has a different name, Media24. But back then it was coming out of decades of being the primary publishing tool of the old, white government. It had all the juicy government printing contracts, the biggest weekly and monthly magazines (I worked on the leading English women’s consumer magazine at the time). It was a company mostly made up of white Afrikaans-speaking people.

The new world order introduced in the early 1990s, and in particular the election of an ANC government and Nelson Mandela as state president in April 1994 wrong footed my employer (I joined the company just a week or two into the new government).

Don’t get me wrong, they were trying to change. Sort of. They simply didn’t quite know how to go about it. Also, some of the journalists on the Afrikaans daily newspapers they printed were highly critical of the new government. Some may have been justified, but others were unreasonable in looking for faults in a political party (recently freedom organisation) new to governing a damaged country.

The situation got to a point where Nelson Mandela had had enough of the criticisms coming out of such a powerful publishing stable. So he invited himself to lunch with the editors and senior executives.

The lunch was set to happen in our staff canteen on the 22nd floor of our building on Cape Town’s Foreshore area (with stunning views of both Cape Town harbour and the famous Table Mountain). Whether staff agreed or not with the new ANC government, there was no doubt everyone was in awe of Nelson Mandela.

Like the vast majority of staff, I was told to be well out of the way when the great man arrived at our building (which still had airport-style security scanners due to the bomb threats during those years).

Chatting to our contract cleaning staff that morning, they told me that not only had they been told to stay out of the way, they were instructed to be in the basement, when Mr Mandela arrived and left the building.

My colleagues and I were horrified. We were planning on being in the foyer when he left. But then we were all white people and the cleaning staff were all black people. We had office jobs, they had labouring jobs. The rules were still somehow different.

Roll on to after lunch and as many office staff as possible crammed into the foyer area (there must have been 150 or so of us – in a building that must have housed many hundreds more). All white (sorry to reference race, but it is relevant given the time and place).

Then one of the six lifts opened and the tall, statesman-like figure of Madiba walked out into our crowd. We had no idea of the stern talk he had just given our seniors (which was later reported widely).

For us, he was a great man who looked surprised at our presence. He proceeded to shake hands with as many of us (including myself) as possible, laughing and joking with this awestruck crowd. He was so nice, friendly and normal.

We then dispersed back to our offices.

As I looked out of my 9th floor office window to the cavalcade below, surrounded by security guards and other officials checking their watches (clearly Nelson Mandela was running late for his next appointment), I spotted our dozen or so cleaning staff in their uniforms standing on the 20 metre-long, narrow traffic island opposite the building entrance. There must have been 50 or 70 people in total, mostly black, crowded into the small space.

But I wasn’t the only one to see them.

As Mr Mandela was being hurried out of the building and ushered to his waiting car by his staff, he too saw this huddled, excited but demur crowd. He strode across, and as he did when inside the building, he shook everyones’ hands. He  laughed and joked with them – no doubt in isiXhosa, his home language and the language of the black people in the region of Cape Town, and Afrikaans, the language of his captors during his 27 years in prison and the language of most of the mixed-race population of Cape Town.

And that is what made him great. He treated us all the same: black and white. He did not see himself as being so senior he only spoke to other senior people. He related to people in their own language. He gave everyone dignity.

This is a lesson to us all.

Hamba Kahle, tata Madiba. Go well.


Debi O’Donovan


Employee Benefits

Twitter: @DebiODonovan