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The first time I met Mandela

The first time I met Nelson Mandela I learnt some important things.

The second time I met him those things were confirmed.

Like all journalists I’ve met presidents, prime ministers, legends and numerous real celebrities, but I didn’t meet Madiba as a journalist. I’ve met Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma, John Vorster and PW Botha — all utterly forgettable. I’m sorry I missed meeting Mother Teresa, John Paul II and Princess Diana — they’re the only ones I would rank in the vicinity of Madiba.

I met Mandela for the first time in 1994 while I was a communication manager with the Chamber of Mines. The previous year we had invited president FW de Klerk as guest of honour to address the mining industry’s AGM. He was good, very good; a humble, sincere, direct lawyer who had just done the unthinkable — given up the reins of power.

And FW blew the mining bosses away. You have to understand that, dating back from Rhodes and Barnato, a rigid hierarchy had existed on the mines in South Africa. At the tippy-top was the mine manager, then came the mine manager’s wife, then came God, then His Son, then the Holy Spirit and so on down the ranks. This was just the way things were. And you showed respect accordingly.

Presidents were newcomers into this clearly and neatly ordered structure. But, somehow we managed, thanks to FW’s diplomacy and the dawning realisation among mining übermenschen that something new was happening in South Africa.

The day of the AGM arrived and us PR types and media-liaison types were like the Cirque du Soleil on opening night. The lift doors on the seventh floor at the Chamber pinged open and out stepped Peter Bunkell, my boss and also a former Rand Daily Mail type, followed by a beaming FW and entourage. The landing was crowded with mining aristocracy, senior Chamber staff, media and eager onlookers. As cameras flashed, FW veered right to the waiting line of the upper crust and dutifully shook hands as he was introduced. It was a huge success and we got mountains of publicity. And I even got some kudos, which was nice.

So it stood to reason that the next year the new president of South Africa would address the Chamber’s AGM again. It would be the first time a black person had set foot within those hallowed halls of mahogany and leather.

This time we knew the procedures and protocols, more or less. The same scene played out again. The lift doors pinged open, and the crème de la crème, the jewels in mining’s crown, stood waiting to shake the hands that for 27 years had “mined” rocks.

But, instead of veering right towards them, he veered left and walked straight to all the saucer-eyed serving staff cramming the doors to our canteen.

Only when he had greeted them all — me among them — to seismic ululating did he do an about-turn to greet his hosts. It was unforgettable in innumerable ways.

The second time was shortly after I had joined the board of Business against Crime at the Presidential Conference on Crime in 1998. For me it was same job, but a much different place. And still he took the time to detour off the red carpet (literally), walk up and grip my hand. “How are you, Mr Kriel? It’s very nice to see you again,” he said, radiating warmth and trust and security and personal confidence, like he had come to Gallagher Estate just to greet me.

I think I stammered something like “Welcome, Mr President,” or “Hello, sir.” I hope I didn’t say “Howzit, my bru,” but I don’t think he’d have minded even if I did. After all, he had worn my high-school rugby number when we beat the All Blacks — him and me.

There is a tangible yet transcendent aura around Mandela, simultaneously commonplace and extraordinary, as physical as gravity and as ethereal as space. It is the aura of greatness.

And meeting him taught me that greatness stems not from meeting expectations, but from showing people what they would never dare expect. It demonstrated beyond mere words that leadership is individual, not colonial. Leadership stands beyond the group — it is not subservient to the group mind.

It taught me that leadership is an affront to conformity, that it opposes equity. It taught me our conventional wisdom about greatness is too restrictive, too confining — like most of our ideas about God.

It taught me that if you aim to take your sphere of influence (whatever it might be) to another level, you do so against its will. Leadership, by definition, understands the colony, the group, the company, the party, but takes it along a different path. Leaders are almost invariably humble. Those who are not we call despots, tyrants, dictators.

You have to drag your sphere of influence — company, club, profession, party, nation — kicking and wailing and digging in its heels to where it ought to be. And it showed me that managers and colonels and captains and presidents are easy come and easy go, but leaders are in a different class altogether.

Leadership cannot be taught as little as hearing, taste or smell can be taught. Senses — like leadership — can be refined, honed and extended, but never taught. All that “leadership school” bunkum is, I regret to say, just bunkum. Management is easy-peasy and that’s what they teach. Anyone can manage. The world is awash in managers; some better than others, and that’s all. But leaders are born.

And that is why we’re in such desperate — and worsening — straits right now. We have no leaders. Or if they’re there, they’re camouflaged behind the moribund masses of managers. I was a manager for many years, but I doubt I ever led. I have high and lofty-sounding titles and some respected achievements to my name. I’ve even been the first African to have won some acclaim and made “history” not so long ago — or so they say.

But I’m sure there are millions just like me — and many far, far better. So I’m acquainted with the ordinary and know it very well. And there is just too much ordinary going around for the extraordinary demands of our times. The two most powerful men in the country are sniffing each other’s arse like puppies. Reconciliation and harmony have been actively replaced by division and racism. And all around are the power junkies squabbling and squawking like crows on a rubbish dump. At and since Polokwane they’ve shown how rabid they really are. Were it not for our sports teams I wonder where we’d be. Probably just as scared and distrusting and desperate as we are now — but with less to cheer about. These are times for leaders, not bleeders.

Surely there has to be another Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela out there. Whatever your colour, your creed, your gender, your income, your education — if you’re a leader, a real leader, kiddo, we need you now. And there’s an elderly man in Houghton who’d be glad to give you a few tips, I’m sure. He gave me some I’ll never forget.


  • “Trust in institutions takes a dive” by Hajra Omarjee in Business Day
  • “History will not absolve us” — Ferial Haffajee in M&G