Nelson Mandela: Leading with difference

‘WHEN ARE YOU GOING TO DISMISS US, MR. PRESIDENT?’

Background: When a new Head of State assumes office, it is taken for granted that those who worked with the outgoing leader will be immediately replaced. This was more fully expected in South Africa than anywhere else because of the apartheid system.

This story tells of how Mr. Mandela continued with the staff he inherited from Mr. de Klerk. Let us picture how the staff in Mr. Mandela’s office reacted in the early days of his presidency. The white employees were understandably anxious, expecting to be dismissed. After all, one of the main objectives of the South African struggle was to fight apartheid – the obnoxious system that gave White people huge socioeconomic and political advantages denied to blacks.

The new administration, they felt, would sweep Whites aside in favour of those who had never had a chance before. A few weeks after his inauguration Mr. Mandela is said to have found himself in a meeting with his new staff. After complimenting the President on his election victory, the staff representative said, ‘Mr. President, I do not know how to put this. Our reason for requesting this meeting is simply to know why you are torturing us.’

Mr. Mandela was obviously shocked, and said, ‘Wait a minute. Did I hear you say that I am torturing you? I clearly understand the meaning of the word ‘torture’, and it is a word I hope will never be used to describe how I relate with other human beings.’ The staff member hastened to explain. ‘I am sorry, Mr. President, may I say it again? All of us here, Sir, know that our jobs in here have to terminated. What is troubling us is that since you took over you have not said anything to us.’ ‘Help me to understand,’ replied Mr. Mandela. ‘What were you expecting me to do?’ ‘Mr. President, we understand very well why you should have your own people around you. All we want to know is when the changes will be effected.’

With a huge smile on his face, casting his eye on everybody in the room, the President said, ‘But you are my people. Since I came into this office, everything has been managed extremely well. I am pleased with the way you are all working. Unless you do not want to work with me, all I can say is that I find you very supportive and competent in your role. Maybe you would like me to request formally, “May I work with you?”’

As the President paused to look at them again, one by one, there was total silence. The confused staff then heard the President say, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, since we know that silence means consent, you will excuse me because I have to attend to my next appointment.’With that, Mandela walked out of the room, leaving his staff stunned behind him. 

For most of us, it is very easy to flow with the prejudices around us. Mr Mandela could have fallen for the prejudice that those who worked with Mr. de Klerk were white and therefore would not secure the interests of the new President and the new government. There are so many areas where prejudice prevents people from relating to others as well as they should. It could be the sort of things they believe about those whose culture is different from their own.

Culled from: “Leading like Madiba; leadership lesson from Nelson Mandela” by Martin Kalungu-Banda

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