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My Time with Mandela

Okay – I will admit right up front that I have never met Nelson Mandela.

As you no doubt know, Nelson Mandela passed away on December 5, 2013, after a long illness.  This week the memorial service for Mr. Mandela was held in South Africa.  Tens of thousands of people, including dozens of world leaders, attended the service and hundreds of thousands more watched on television and online around the world.

Mr. Mandela was a great man.  He endured enormous hardships for his political and social beliefs yet he was able to put aside the pain, suffering, and vindictiveness of the past to create and implement a vision for the future.  To my mind, he is one of the very few people who were able to make the transition from being the leader of a revolution to being a political leader of people.  It is a transition that rarely goes well.

When I say that I spent time with Mr. Mandela I mean that I spent time with Mr. Mandela’s South Africa.  Over the years, I have had the opportunity to visit South Africa several times as a tourist and while helping the convenience store industry in that country.

My first time in the country was in 1985 right when I was out of law school.  I was hitchhiking my way from Nairobi, Kenya, to Cape Town, South Africa.  On this first visit, apartheid was still in place.  The races were segregated from each other.  There were separate racial arrangements for bathrooms, restaurants, water fountains, and public benches.  In the major cities, you never saw a black person after night fall as there was a curfew for them to be out of the white portions of the cities.  As a tourist, you could feel the resentment and fear that emanated from both sides of the racial divide.  The impression that I left with after a couple of weeks was that South Africa was a beautiful country with great people (of all races) but with a huge mess on their hands.

I didn’t visit South Africa again because of the sanctions imposed in 1986 until Mr. Mandela was able to orchestrate the transition of power from the white National Party to the black African National Congress.  During these visits I had the chance to visit Robben Island where Mr. Mandela was imprisoned and his home in Soweto (which is, incidentally, right down the street from the home of Bishop Desmond Tutu making it, at one time, the area most densely populated by Nobel Peace Prize winners).  The contrast between the islolation and hardship of the prison and the normalcy of his home life was striking.

I also saw the removal of segregated public areas, the removal of curfews, and the implementation of programs to promote economic equalization such as the Black Economic Empowerment and housing programs in the country.

However, there is still much work to be done.  Economic inequality, limited access to education and healthcare, and unemployment are huge issues that must be solved before South Africa can truly rise to “first world” status.

Mr. Mandela opened the door and showed the path.  It will be up to the politicians that follow him to make the journey.