In 2001, I was lucky enough to work briefly in Johannesburg for a large South African advertising agency. The project was a government-sponsored initiative on how to re-brand the new South Africa and how to position the economy. For the first few years post-apartheid, South Africa had been seen as simply a mineral-based, commodity-driven, extractive economy. The state was keen to portray the economy as having a burgeoning entrepreneurial class of small businesses.
In order to facilitate the new image, the ANC government had to build a bridge from the old commodity-based economy to something that felt more like a knowledge economy. Such a bridge is paved with education and education costs a lot.
Therefore, the state was constantly trying to balance the needs of the people and the appetite of investors for risk. As a result, much of the work focused on how to present the changing South African economy to foreign investors.
The group was mixed, but still largely white and Indian.
When asked what was the South African economy’s best asset, the answer, almost in unison, wasn’t gold, diamonds, other minerals, tourism or the potential of the population – but Mandela, pure and simple.
Even back then, the name Mandela was a brand and the brand stood for the rainbow nation, the possibilities and the future. As long as Mandela’s name could be invoked, there was still a chance that the rainbow nation would make it.
He embodied forgiveness, reconciliation, magnanimity and more to the point, pragmatism. Indeed, this pragmatism seemed to be shared by many fellow citizens. On the first night, having heard lots from white men about how the people have an enormous capacity for mercy and compassion and this was the reason that the rainbow nations would survive without much recrimination, I was chatting to one of the few black guys on the team.
When I asked him how the whole thing was working and whether there was any truth in the whites’ suggestion that the blacks were particularly tolerant even after everything that had occurred during white rule, he grinned and said: “They pretend it never happened and we pretend to forgive them.”
These sentiments could have come directly from that other brilliant hero to South Africans, Mahatma Gandhi, who memorably said of reconciliation: “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”
Mandela understood this and knew that it was not, and still is not, in the gift of millions of poor Africans to forgive, but that there had to be a mechanism to deal with the past.
This type of leadership, the ability to understand not just your own people but to have the authority to bring your enemies with you, is one of the many extraordinary attributes that Mandela displayed at a critical juncture.
Leading two tribes – black and white – bringing them together and forging a joint project would be a truly magnificent achievement, but to have brought the many tribes of South Africa together is something that practically no one could have dreamed of. Yet Mandela did this.
JK Galbraith, the great American economist and adviser to JKF, said: “The role of the leader is to understand the anxieties of his people and do something about it.”
In the context of South Africa, there were times when Mandela seemed to understand the anxieties of the whites as much as the blacks.
Mandela was prepared to take enormous risks to make sure that interests were balanced and fears assuaged.
Over the intervening years I have visited South Africa a number of times and remain shocked by just how much of the country’s wealth the white population has managed to hold on to without massive social upheaval.
Yet the country is profoundly different now to 10 years ago. It is a young country – only 18 years old. Despite the massive disparity in wealth, the country is going patiently in the right direction. This patience must owe a lot to Mandela.
South Africa is not only becoming normal despite its grotesque origins, but very few would have forecast such a peaceful transition to democracy.
Whatever happens in the years ahead, the true achievement is that so much has happened so far under the wise and extraordinary leadership of Nelson Mandela.