COLUMN: A Senior Moment with Barry ZeVan: Nelson Mandela, Ubiquitous Exemplar

Updated: 02/18/2014 9:25 AM By: Barry ZeVan

Photo courtesy of Barry ZeVan
Photo courtesy of Barry ZeVan

Sadly, as long as human beings exist, there will always be pockets of hatred, bigotry and ignorance scattered throughout every society. There will also be those who have no knowledge how REAL leaders lead, not via boastfulness, but rather because the giants among them faced and experienced some of the worst elements of life.

Lest we forget, Nelson Mandela, the justifiably-revered former President of South Africa, pounded and broke rocks daily with a sledgehammer in the hot South African sun on Robben Island for at least 17 of his 27 years in prison.

 Tonight, on one of the national television newscasts, a reporter recalled the day he interviewed Mr. Mandela just three days after he'd been released from that 27-year imprisonment. The reporter said Mr. Mandela's demeanor was one of a person who had just returned from a three-day weekend away from home. That's the sort of mental strength few of us possess, ever did or ever will.

In my opinion, it's also a heart-strengthening example that whatever difficult times we're dealt are minor compared to the humiliation Mr. Mandela endured and refused to let demean or kill him. 

His exemplary mental and emotional strength, along with his racial unification achievements, permeated those who would stereotypically be characterized as one-dimensional in their thinking.

I experienced one example of Mr. Mandela's reach to those many would think most unlikely candidates for racial harmony. Here's the story: In February, 2007, I was in South Africa doing some public relations work for a company based here in the Twin Cities. Regardless, the most memorable moment was in Cape Town, on the way to a meeting east of that city. A hired driver picked us up at our hotel adjacent to the beach. After we asked his country of origin, just as a matter of conversation, he told us he was a Muslim of Nigerian descent.

When we were passing on the freeway adjacent to downtown Cape Town, he said we should look to our right to embrace the magnitude of the vibrant downtown and the modest skyscrapers therein. After we looked, he said, verbatim, something I'll always remember, and perhaps you will, too: "Thank God for the Jews.” I asked what he meant. He said, "Thanks to the ones who came here from Europe after World War II and their financial resources, we have so many of these beautiful buildings."

I told him his words should be plastered all over the world. I remarked his comments would be considered quite unusual for those who think in stereotypes, and he said, again verbatim, "It's President Mandela who opened our eyes that we're all just people, not races." Amen.

That truly great leader's wisdom will hopefully be never minimized nor forgotten. He DID change the world. Enough said.

Thanks, as always, for taking the time to read these memories, humbly shared.