I often wonder what Madiba would make of these turbulent times we live in now. When he passed away in 2013, at the age of 96, few of us had any idea how divided the world would be just a few years later.
It’s a world in crisis: nearly 70 million people have been forced from their homes as a result of war, violence and persecution. Open trade and freedom of movement are becoming casualties of rising populism and nationalism. And tensions between the world’s superpowers are perhaps the worst they have been since the end of the Cold War.
In this time of turmoil, suffering and conflict, there’s no question in my mind: Madiba’s conciliatory presence, his unmatched ability to help people overcome their differences, is sorely missed.
As is his unwavering belief in our common humanity. “Man’s goodness is a flame that can be hidden but never extinguished,” he once said. I’m sure he would do what he could to encourage us to listen to one another, to be kind, and to build on what unites us, not what divides us. Most certainly, he would seek to ease tensions and bring adversaries together – for a chat, to share a laugh, even some song and dance.
This is one of my most lasting memories of Madiba: I have never known anybody who transforms rooms the way he did, lighting them up with his humour, his humility and his wisdom. Whether it was asking me to help save South Africa’s health club jobs or helping to create The Elders, unveiling a statue for Steve Biko or campaigning for those suffering from HIV/Aids, he was always working tirelessly for other people. Madiba made time for everyone, and had a magical skill for bringing out the best in us.
Madiba’s wonderful personal gifts are all the more striking considering his own story. After 27 years of imprisonment at the hands of the racist and ruthless apartheid regime, no one could have blamed him for harbouring nothing but disdain for the people who took his freedom and much of his adult life. But Madiba knew better.
“Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies,” he famously explained. When he finally walked free from Victor Verster Prison on 11 February 1991, he chose a different path, a wiser path. He understood that only forgiveness and dialogue would bring South Africans of all races together to face the future. And he succeeded. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, chaired by Madiba’s dear friend Archbishop Desmond Tutu, was key to South Africa’s rebirth as a nation. A triumph of love over hate translated into an enduring political vision that has inspired many other nations emerging from conflict and bloodshed.
So, on the eve of Madiba’s 100th birthday, there’s no better moment to stand up for his legacy – in South Africa and around the world. As the adage goes, we stand on the shoulders of giants. But even among giants, Madiba stood taller and stronger than everyone else.
** Sir Richard Branson at the opening of a school on December 12, 2011 in Limpopo, South Africa. (Photo by Gallo Images/Foto24/Nelius Rademan)