Nelson Mandela and redefining leadership

Nelson Mandela was a great man who redefined what it meant to be a great leader. He taught the world about the power of forgiveness and the importance of treating everyone equally. In my new autobiography, Finding My Virginity, I share how his death personally affected me. Here's an exclusive extract: 

Four years ago, I woke up with the rest of the world to learn that Madiba had died. On one level, it wasn’t a shock – Madiba had been ill for a long time – but it was a blow all the same. We had lost not only a great man; the world had lost one of its greatest leaders. Madiba had shown us what can be achieved by leading with integrity and empathy and the desire to help others. The act of forgiveness that Madiba gave his own captors who held him in prison for twenty-seven years will be remembered forever.

On a personal level, I had lost someone I looked to as a mentor and considered a friend. More than anything, Madiba had made me and many others smile, laugh and dance again and again. I remember the time he was travelling on one of our planes to New York, and found my young friend Peta-Lynn in the galley. He offered to make her a cup of tea and before long they were in cahoots, swapping stories. I have never known anybody transform rooms the way Madiba 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 HIV/AIDS sufferers, he was always working tirelessly for other people. Madiba made time for everyone, and had a magical skill for bringing the best out of people. I loved seeing how he interacted with his wife Graça Machel; their partnership was full of love and understanding and they weren’t afraid to give each other time and space. Everyone could learn from that – I certainly have.

Image from Virgin.com

When Graça invited me to Madiba’s funeral in his home village of Qunu, I dropped everything to be there. After landing in South Africa, I drove through the night to get to the funeral. As we entered the village, a breathtaking rainbow appeared on the horizon, which could not have been more appropriate in Madiba’s rainbow nation. The old African adage ‘You’ve not buried the person until you go to the village’ also felt fitting. There had been a government-organised memorial service earlier in the week, which was a worthy commemoration of Madiba’s life, but I’m sure he would have loved a little more dancing and singing!

After getting out of the car in Qunu, we were met by a few local people. I spoke to a delightful five-year-old girl called Jamie, who summed it up perfectly.

‘It really makes my heart sore,’ she said. ‘I think I might cry.’

I was soon welling up, too. Before the burial several of Madiba’s friends gave moving speeches, notably the President of Malawi, Joyce Banda. I wrote down her words: ‘A leader is someone who falls in love with the people they serve and allows the people to fall in love with them.’ I sat next to the delightful Oprah Winfrey and we shared some thoughts on how much comfort and hope Madiba had brought to us all. 

After the funeral Madiba’s family gave me the great honour of asking me to join them at the burial itself, which was a very poignant, private, traditional Xhosa ceremony. At one point I panicked when I saw that Madiba’s grandson had fallen right into the grave. As I peered in, about to call out, three men pulled him out unhurt and he dusted off his suit. Then another grandson was pulled out of the grave. I hadn’t realised that it was their tradition to go down onto the coffin and leave something that was a bond between them and the deceased.

It was fitting that the most moving moment came at the very end, from Madiba’s dear friend Archbishop Tutu. Together the two of them have done so much to promote peace and reconciliation in South Africa and everywhere on earth. As Madiba’s stone was being laid, Arch said: ‘He does not need a stone for us to remember him; we carry him in our hearts.’ Standing next to the grave, I knew this was not the end of Mandela’s journey. The long walk to freedom continues for so many people around the world, and it is through us all that his legacy will prevail. The loss of Madiba hit me hard on my next birthday, which is the same date as his. Every 18 July he would find the time to call and wish me happy birthday. I missed not getting his call that day, just as I missed not getting a call from my father. I still get a lovely note each year from Graça Machel, who continues to do wonderful work in the world, particularly through the Elders.

Madiba, I cannot put into words what you meant to me but thank you for your leadership, inspiration, friendship and the joy you brought into all of our lives. You are, and will be, greatly missed.

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