Today marks one of the most traumatic days in our country’s history, as we remember the day when Nelson Mandela passed away on 5 December 2013. He was arguably one of the greatest leaders that not only graced our shores but became a global icon, whose legacy is etched in the memory of the world at large. When we started off on this journey of a post-apartheid dispensation, there was no precedent for the new democratic architecture we wanted to construct for South Africa and experience was not as readily available as is now. But one thing was certain, the founding fathers of this new democratic dispensation, spearheaded by Nelson Mandela, had the moral credentials and visionary foresight.  Their legacy and the example they imparted to us, inspired us to give it our best shot and rebuild the country from the ravages of the past. As to the degree of our success, that is a topic for another day. Today I want to focus on the legacy of Madiba.

Credible leaders have the rare ability to spot potential and attach value to it. They are prepared to go the extra mile and invest time and resources through a dedicated process of mentoring. In the words of Marvin Ashton “Be the one who nurtures and builds. Be the one who has an understanding and a forgiving heart and looks for the best in people. Leave people better than you found them.”

To enhance your leadership credibility, you must always create an environment where others can grow, be stretched, and continually be challenged. One of the defining moments of my leadership journey in this regard, was taught to me by Nelson Mandela. At a personal level, I had the privilege to interact with President Mandela on several occasions during my tenure as MEC of Finance and Economic Affairs in the North West Province and our political work within the ruling party. The one encounter that made the most profound impact on my life was on 28 March 1997, during President Mandela’s state visit to the Prime Minister of India, Deve Gowda. I was coincidentally also in India at that time, being hosted by our then High Commissioner to India Jerry Matjila, for a study trip on Small Medium and Micro Enterprise (SMME) development. Madiba on hearing that I am also in India, requested that I be part of his official delegation to meet the Indian Prime Minister.

This was arguably one of the highlights of my political career. I was really taken aback by this gesture. I made sure I got up early that morning, shaved myself twice and even ironed my own shirt to ensure it was in tip top shape. Though overwhelmed by the occasion and being on my best behavior, when I entered the room Madiba made me feel so welcome as he enquired about my trip and how things were in our province. As the discussions ultimately ensued, I just marveled to see the man at work as he engaged his counterpart from India. I soaked up every bit of his logical reasoning and wise counsel given to a colleague without being prescriptive. His deep insight about geo–political dynamics, was just a marvel to listen to.

Madiba was under no obligation to invite me to be part of his delegation, but he regarded me as sufficiently important to be part of his team. It says a lot about the measure of the man. Many of us shut the door on others when we are at the pinnacle of our leadership role and everything just revolves around me, myself, and I.

I learned the following critical lessons out of that encounter with Madiba which from then onwards, greatly informed my leadership approach:

1. Leaders need to appreciate the potential in others and create space and opportunity for them to grow. Tony Dungy puts it so aptly “Mentor leaders look beyond themselves, focusing on the people they lead and where they should be going together.”

2. Leaders need to create an atmosphere that is encouraging and affirming. What struck me, his delegation consisted of only five of us and during the introduction, he specifically introduced me as one of his provincial ministers of finance. I was not just anybody, I was one of his. There are leaders that just tolerate you but never affirm you.

3. The greatest impartation of a leader is not in what he or she says, but how he or she acts. Each one of us has an obligation in our leadership journey, to identify people whose conduct and example is worth emulating. Paying close attention on how they respond to different sets of circumstances, can give us valuable insights for our own leadership development. You cannot surround yourself with mediocrity and expect excellence in your leadership output. You will only be as good as the people you spend time with.

4. Great leaders have a generational perspective in mind. I was just about three years into political office and yet Madiba saw me as sufficiently important to expose me to this valuable teaching moment. He was mindful about equipping others to keep the momentum of what he stood for, beyond his lifespan. In the words of Dr Myles Munroe “The greatest act of leadership is mentoring. No matter how much you may learn, achieve, accumulate or accomplish, if it dies with you, then you are a generational failure.” 

Leaders need to be mindful of the implications their actions and decisions might have on generations to come. I am intensely conscious at this stage of my life about matters of legacy and would like to pursue those things in life that will leave an indelible mark and worth emulating. Our generation needs to ensure that when we exit the scene, we leave our world in a much better shape than how we found it. You might not be in the same position of a Nelson Mandela or any other iconic figure in the world, but never underestimate what profound impact your humble contribution can make on others. The foremost question that needs to pre-occupy your mind when you put your head on the pillow at night is – whose life did I touched today?

Long live the spirit of Nelson Mandela!

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  1. Very Profound and Powerful !!

  2. I am inspired by your expression of love in action.

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