My Day With Nelson Mandela

My Day With Nelson Mandela


When: September 2000

Where: Melbourne, Australia

Purpose of meeting: I created an “all day” event called World Reconciliation Day and he agreed to participate.

This blog post: Some of my personal thoughts and impressions. Information about the event itself is here.

First Impressions

On the day that I met Nelson Mandela he was the only living person (at the time) that I considered to be a hero. It was the first and only time in my life where I had an opportunity to directly interact with a hero and try to understand what made him different. When I merged everything that I had read about him with the man sitting in front of me it hit me that he was just like me and everyone else in the room.

He is not super human. He is just human. He did not live a perfect life. It was imperfect. The reality is that we can all be Nelson Mandela – but there is a critical caveat. We can all be Nelson Mandela but that that statement is only a reference to our potential. We have the “potential” to be Nelson Mandela. The difference between us and Nelson Mandela is that he had the courage and will to transform his potential into reality. The rest of just think we have that ability. That’s why he is a hero and rest of us aren’t. We don’t deserve any credit for having potential – we didn’t do anything to get it. We do deserve credit for turning our potential into reality – because that requires more courage and will than most of us are prepared to bear.

What Did We Do All Day?

The day started late in the morning at the Melbourne Convention Center where we would hold the World Reconciliation Day conference. It was the most formal part of the day. The conference was held in front of a live audience that included a lot of high profile people and was televised live on ABC. There was a panel of distinguished people delivering speeches, interviews, presentations.

Those of us that were panelists  gathered in a back stage green room. The people in the room included Bob Hawke and Malcome Fraser (two former Prime Ministers), Hurricane Carter, Sir Gustav Nosal (The Australian of the year), Steve Bracks (Premiere of the state of Victoria, equivalent of a Governor in the US), Akmet Dangor (CEO of the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund) – and me.

Nelson Mandela walked in and shook hands with everyone. It was interesting to see Madiba meet Hurricane Carter for the first time. Both Hurricane Carter and Madiba obviously knew about each other and had a lot in common – both were former boxers that were incorrectly imprisoned. It felt a little weird to be the person responsible for bringing them together so many years later. Given that I was the organizer of the event I felt compelled to say a few words. I didn’t even know that we would all be meeting in this room before the event so I certainly didn’t prepare anything. What do you say to two former Prime Ministers, the Premier of the State of Victoria, Nelson Mandela, the Australia of the year and a long list of other important people tightly packed in a small room before an event? I welcomed everyone, thanked them for contributing to making such a significant day possible and rallied everyone to change the world – by just one little bit – in the next two hours. They cheered and seemed to take me seriously – that was all I could ask for at the time.

We all got out there and did what we had to do. The speeches were interesting, informative and entertaining. Madiba’s interview included the usual combination of candor, insight and fun that we expect from him. The pinnacle of the conference was presenting Nelson Mandela with a check for US$1 million (a donation to the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund). As I stood there on stage with Nelson Mandela – he was holding up one end of the check while I held the other end – and watching a flurry of media taking pictures while the crowd was on standing and applauding, it occurred to me that it was only 18 months earlier that had I created this company with a few thousand dollars of credit card debt and it had developed in this brief period of time to the point where this day and this moment were possible.

The quiet time with Madiba was in the afternoon where we held a very small and private gathering at the Hyatt hotel. It was an opportunity to have a “real” and casual conversation as opposed to being subject to the rigidity of a high profile interview where everybody involved knows that each word and facial expression will be analysed and interpreted to the nth degree. Madiba’s relaxed state of mind in this gathering is obvious in the images – as was mine. A small amount of Q & A between Madiba and other people was captured on video. Mine wasn’t – that was deliberate. I like the idea of keeping the subject of that conversation private.

The final event of the day was the concert.  It was held in the evening at a football stadium (named Colonial Stadium at the time) in front of tens of thousands of people and it would be where Madiba would deliver his penultimate speech about the one thing he is most well known for – reconciliation.  It was great speech and the entire evening went according to plan.

My Favorite Moment

This long and surreal day started to wind down late in the evening after Madiba has delivered his speech at the WRD concert. The bands were still playing but Madiba’s speech was the final critical element of this epic day so I decided to go back stage and take a moment to myself. As I leaned up against a wall I caught site of Madiba slowly and gingerly walking away from the stage with the assistance of his security personnel. It occurred to me that this would be the last time I would ever see him. I also had an uneasy feeling. Although I had achieved everything that I wanted to achieve on that day, I felt like my direct interaction with Madiba during the day was mostly formal. I felt like he thought of me as just another person that wanted to shake his hand and that he probably already forgot who I was.

As he walked further into the distance something caused him to stop and turn around – and look directly at me. He had a smile on his face. He lifted the palm of his hand in my direction and yelled out “Thank you Adam! Thank you!” It’s very easy for to say “what” he said but it’s not easy communicate “the way” he said it. All I can say is that he meant it and it meant a lot to me.

To this day, I don’t know why he turned around – I definitely wasn’t in his peripheral vision.

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