JOHANNESBURG—South Africa's PR industry has hailed Nelson Mandela as a powerful communicator who reshaped his country's destiny by displaying a unique combination of leadership and understanding.
Leading figures from South Africa's communications firms made the comments following Mandela's death last week at the age of 95. A revered statesman who led South Africa out of apartheid after 27 years in prison, Mandela's death has sparked an outpouring of grief and tributes across his country and beyond.
In particular, industry executives pointed to Mandela's emotional intelligence, demonstrated by his decision to wear the Springbok jersey during the 1995 Rugby World Cup final, and his "extraordinary ability" to connect with people from all walks of life.
CEO, Magna Carta
Mandela's leadership was deeply rooted in effective and impactful communication both in words and in actions. His messages, which were always clearly articulated and reinforced in action, made him a very powerful communicator.
His appearance at the 1995 Rugby World Cup which was hosted in South Africa, wearing the Springbok captain's jersey number 6, was a powerful act in reinforcing his message of reconciliation. Rugby up until that moment, was regarded as a white Afrikaans sport only--his embrance of the sport was by extension his embrace of the very same Afrikaans population, which was up until then very suspicious of the new government and the new South Africa.
He was very much aware of his powerful star like status and its impact on people, therefore, he will always humble himself so that people could relate to him and more importantly so they could understand his message. I had the privillage of witnessing his style of communication when I was a journalist covering his different events. Even when he was in high pressure situations he would manage his interaction with journalist with a level of grace and sincerity that secured him a lot of goodwill and trust from the media. Whether it was communicating deeply personal matters or issues of state, he led from the front in communicating, never allowing speculation to rule over an issue that involves him.
I never met Nelson Mandela, but he played a crucial role in my life. He inspired me to be a better person, and to be a better leader. His passing has had a profound effect on me, South Africa and the world. But even in death, he remains a nation builder. I visited his family home in Johannesburg on Friday, and I was moved by the people – from all walks-of-life – who came out to pay homage to the Father of our South African nation.
From what I’ve observed, Nelson Mandela was a natural communicator. He made everyone in his presence feel like they were the centre of attention, just by weaving his infectious charm and knack for storytelling in with emotional intelligence and a genuine interest in the individual or community he was addressing. We can all learn from how he was always present in the moment, making whoever he was speaking to feel valued.
Madiba’s death has impacted everyone here at WE South Africa. We spent time on Friday, as well as today, speaking at length about how we can continue his nation-building legacy. We’re also adapting our current ‘Make A Difference’ programme, to ensure we make the impact he always did.
Partner, College Hill South Africa
Nelson Mandela was a great human being renowned for his leadership, humility, democratic vision and infectious smile – and I personally do not believe his legacy leaves us along with his physical presence.
Looking back, I remember the rush of elation I felt watching Madiba walk out of prison in 1991. I hold to myself still the beautiful hope he inspired for our rainbow nation when he was inaugurated as president of South Africa in 1994 – and who can forget how magnificently he manoeuvred a nation of cynics mired in mutual distrust to a moment of pure unity when he handed the Rugby World Cup trophy to Francois Pienaar in 1995.
If I think objectively of 1995, one must acknowledge too his extraordinary ability as a communicator in recognising how to engage and validate all stakeholders. His unpopular (with his previously disadvantaged colleagues) insistence that in rugby at least, the Springboks got to keep their name was an acknowledgement of the validity of white culture in the new country context and went a long way to promoting inclusion. Couple that with his choice to wear Pienaar’s jersey as he stepped out onto the field and this non-verbal signal to everyone that his new South Africa embraced all cultures – even those so very deep in the Afrikaans tradition of people formerly viewed as his oppressors – was an indisputable gesture that everyone has a role in contributing to the country.
Mandela knew, as so many communications professionals do, the unifying force of a sport or shared cultural past time and he carefully and consciously used that World Cup for the nation building he knew was critical to the achievement of his dream for all of us. At no other time before – or to be quite frank, since – have South Africans been more hopeful of achieving the rainbow nation nirvana. It was also a very savvy signal to the global community that the agenda of the new South Africa was social cohesion, that racial conflict and punitive reparation were not ‘part of the programme’ and that therefore, South Africa was still a safe destination for FDI and was most certainly open for business.
In 1999, he chose the stage of South Africa’s most recognised cross over artist, Johnny Clegg (the 'White Zulu') as a vehicle for another global show of unity – as well as a critical emotional driver for cohesion in the SA diaspora and international community. He staged a ‘surprise’ appearance on the stage of Johnny’s Paris concert during his song ‘Asimbonanga’ ("We haven't seen him"), which called for the release of Nelson Mandela, and which also called out the names of three representative martyrs of the South African liberation struggle - Steve Biko, Victoria Mxenge, and Neil Aggett. The video of this appearance is cited as key moment in the South African psyche and I have to admit still causes a warm rush of joy and hope each time I view it.
As the consummate communications professional, Mandela recognised that one of the greatest issues affecting global confidence in Africa (and South Africa too) was the perception of it being AIDS-ridden and without the resources, ability or will to meet this challenge. In the mindset of the world, AIDS had become an African problem and he knew that we had to demonstrate that not only was South Africa up for the challenge, but that it could pull the weight of global influencers behind the cause. This was also during the time of Thabo Mbeki's AIDS controversy and reparative positive action was necessary.
And now, so swiftly it seems, he is gone. I hope that his passing and our memories of what he stood for will serve to remind ALL South Africans of the extraordinary transition from apartheid to democracy he achieved — and the mutual will for national coherence under his presidency after 1994. His death may indeed be his final communication to us — as we gather to mourn him on Sunday, 15 December, perhaps this will be the moment in which we reignite national pride and re-inspire each other to be the active citizens of the unified nation he fought so long to achieve.
Chair, Edelman Africa
The first time I met President Mandela in person was in the months after his release from prison, when he addressed a meeting of business people in Johannesburg as the African National Congress (ANC) leader. This was no ordinary formal business dinner because when he arrived, he made the time to move from table to table to shake hands and speak to each of us and crack jokes and put us at ease in that special graceful manner that was his trademark; it not only seemed as if he had all the time in the world for us, but as if he knew who we were. He stripped a large room of hard-bitten business people of their prejudices and presumption in fifteen minutes, before even making a speech!
This is what struck me at that dinner and on the few other occasions when I was privileged enough to observe him in person; after 27 years of incarceration he did not focus on himself, but on those around him. He may have been cut of from the world, separated from his loved ones, but he was more comfortable in his humanity than most people. He seemed genuinely to enjoy people, and knew how to connect with people as individuals.