by Nipun Mehta
Last year, I had the pleasure of spending some time with Francois Pienaar, a rugby legend who was very close to Nelson Mandela — and famously played by Matt Damon in the movie Invictus. As he shared many personal encounters with Mandela, the thing that struck me was how practically every story spoke to Mandela’s humility.
One of the most pivotal moments in Francois’s life came when he visited Mandela’s jail cell on Robben Island. Holding his arms out, he said, “This is what how much space he lived in, for 27 straight years. I grew up thinking he was a terrorist. All Afrikaners did. And yet he come out of jail with an open heart that can hold everyone.” Indeed, Mandela’s first words, after being released from jail: “I stand here before you not as a prophet, but a humble servant.” Humble. Servant.
A telling example of Mandela’s servant leadership came in 1995. Amidst rampant civil tensions that were taking hundreds of lives, he had come to power as the first democratically elected President of South Africa. That also happened to be the year that the country’s rugby team was winning a lot. With millions cheering on, many South Africans saw this as a symbolic opportunity to signal the end of Apartheid; they were eager to change the team name, colors and jersey in a sport that was widely considered a “white man’s game”. Mandela, on the other hand, saw a different opportunity. An opportunity for forgiveness. He went from sport clubs to town halls to rally his countrymen to take the higher road: “We have to surprise them with compassion, with restraint and generosity; I know, all of the things they denied us, but this is no time to celebrate petty revenge.”
That was the thing about Mandela. He had the audacity to believe in each person’s capacity to transform their suffering into love. He had done it himself. Where the power of many teaches us that everyone is good at something, the power of one points to our unbounded capacity for inner transformation. Everyone can find greatness in love.
|They kept the same name, same jersey, same colors. Springboks in green. That year South Africa makes it to the finals, where they faced New Zealand. At the end of regulation, it’s tied 12-12. Overtime. An epic game. And South Africa wins the World Cup, for the first time in the country’s history! Mandela humbly comes out onto the field, not in a Presidential suit, but wearing a green Springboks jersey — what many considered the “uniform of the enemy.” The 65 thousand person crowd spontaneously erupts into a chant: Nelson, Nelson, Nelson! It was electric. “Never seen so many grown men cry,” players later said. The crowd later goes on to sing “Shoooo–shaaaa-llooooo–aaaaa” — a Zulu song that Mandela had often sung to himself while in jail. In that moment, an entire nation stood united under Mandela’s leadership — and his love.|
In the concluding trophy presentation, as Mandela handed the trophy to Francois, he whispered to him: “Thank you for what you have done for the country.” Francois paused, deeply moved. And then spontaneously came his response, to the man he had once thought of as a terrorist, “Thank you, Madiba, for what you have done for the world.”
Mandela shook the world, not through the might of his ego, or his considerable skills, but through his breathtaking capacity for inner transformation and humility. He believed in the power of one, he embodied that power of one, and showed us how it is a force beyond measure.