Holding vigil for Madiba

Like so many others around the world, I have been holding vigil for Nelson Mandela. I may be continents away from that road outside the hospital in Pretoria but it feels, to me, as if I am there in spirit. I am grateful to those women who are singing so beautifully, and grateful for being able to share – in some small way – the love that South Africans have for Madiba.

I once came very close to Mr. Mandela, just after he was elected President in the first multi-racial elections in 1994. I was an election observer, part of the very large contingent that Canada sent to participate in UNOMSA’s observation of this ground-breaking election. I had spent several days observing in ‘deep’ Soweto, the huge township just outside Johannesburg.

But on this day, I was standing outside the Carlton Hotel in Johannesburg. A friend in Yellowknife had asked if I would bring a small gift to one of his friends who lived in South Africa. I didn’t know what she looked like (this was before Facebook and Google) and so I was wearing my elder daughter’s red sandals, which I had borrowed, to help her recognize me.

I was looking out on the street, watching for her, when I felt someone push me. I turned around, a bit angry, and then stood amazed. The man who had pushed me was one of Mr. Mandela’s security team, and Mr. Mandela had just emerged from the hotel. He was only about three feet away from me.

One of the local South African observers, with whom I had been talking earlier, went over to him, and shook his hand. I watched as these two people shared a moment of joy. I asked her afterwards if it was the first time she had shaken Mr. Mandela’s hand. “It was the first time I shook his hand as President”, she said.

I still remember that moment so vividly because Mr. Mandela emanated such a sense of peace, integrity, joy. I have heard others also struggle to describe this aura, this energy of his.

I remembered it again when I watched Invictus, in which Morgan Freeman portrayed Mr. Mandela as he used support for the rugby team, the Springboks, as a way to demonstrate to South Africans that he was the president of all the people  – as a way of overcoming long-held divisions.

And for me, among all the many tributes that will undoubtedly be paid to Mr. Mandela when he leaves us physically, it will be his wisdom in understanding systems and structures – and the importance of symbolism in changing them – that will be his most powerful legacy.

Apartheid was a system of dividing the races in South Africa. There were white areas, areas for blacks, and areas for coloureds. The country was a map of places where some people could go and others could not. And underneath those physical delineations of difference lay an entire architecture – psychological, spiritual – like an underwater continent. I remember speaking with a teacher, who was by the apartheid definition “coloured”, during the counting process. I remember him saying to me that he could speak to me, because I was a white person from another country. But when he spoke to white South Africans, he felt a revulsion of spirit.

Madiba’s genius lay in understanding that changes in governance structure, and thus in society and in its governance, had to be rooted in changing that underlying spiritual architecture. And that kind of change was not something one person could do by himself, no matter how revered – it had to be a change made by the people themselves, of their own volition.

It was, however, a change that he could inspire, both by his example and by the actions he chose to take. He had power, and he exercised it, often in ways that surprised his staff. Rather than creating a black-only government and thus merely changing the colour and ethnicity of those at the top of the system, Madiba chose to inspire a rainbow nation by how he structured his government and cabinet. He was inclusive, not exclusive, in his approach to governance.

Knowing that there was a vital need to openly deal with all that had happened in the past and to hold accountable those responsible for terrible abuses, he created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission so that people could learn what had happened to loved ones and that those who regretted their actions could confess what they had done. Those who were not prepared to confess their past actions would still be prosecuted through the legal system. Not only was this a community-oriented and open approach to dealing with the terrible pain of the past, it also was efficient in organizational terms, as anyone who has watched the specially-created tribunal dealing with the aftermath of the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s can recognize.

And – as is told in Invictus – he chose to work with the Springboks, who had long been a symbol of white dominance. His choice to support and help the team, and to appear in their jersey at the penultimate game, showed the power of his understanding of how to change the spiritual architecture that lay under the way society and government had operated in the past. What he was saying, symbolically, was that we are all one nation and that we can work together to change the past. It was, in essence, an invitation to the nation – and especially to white South Africans who had feared black power – to create the new South Africa he could see so clearly.

Anyone who has tried to change a corporate culture, in a company or organization or community (and most especially when that culture has been a toxic one), can appreciate the magnitude of Madiba’s achievement. Today, the debate in South Africa is not about who is in charge of government as much as it is about how well they are governing. And that is not a debate that is unique to South Africa.

Madiba will always be a towering figure in our world, no matter whether he is with us physically or not. He inspires us to a bigger picture of ourselves, our societies and our world, and he will always do so.

Thank you, Madiba, for all that you have given to us and for all that you represent. May your passing be peaceful, surrounded by loved ones near your hospital bed and surrounded in spirit by all those around the world who are grateful for your generous and peaceful spirit, your wisdom, and your understanding of how to shape the kind of world we all want to live in.

A footnote: I am indebted to Molly Melching for helping me understand the power of addressing that underlying spiritual architecture, as a way of creating societal change (and for the wise man who  helped her understand that). You can see her speak about this in a wonderful video from the 2013 Skoll World Forum.