The text below is taken from the excellent book “playing the enemy”, by John Carlin – a book about the transition in power in South Africa from the old apartheid movement to Nelson Mandela’s new government, and the role that the 1994 rugby World Cup played in this process and in the reunification of national spirit.
There is a little section in this book that made me light up as I read it, because it shows the importance Nelson Mandela places on knowledge and experience.
The scene is just after Mandela’s appointment as president, and John Reinders, chief of presidential protocol under De Klerk, and the former head of the prison service, is in his office packing up his desk.
“I came in early that morning to collect my things”, Reinders recalled. “All us whites had applied for jobs elsewhere, sure that they would be asked to leave. Quite a few of us meant to go and work for De Klerk in the deputy presidency”.
Reinders was packing away his mementoes of 17 years spent running the presidential office, organising ceremonial dos, bumping into famous people on official trips, when suddenly he was startled out of his reminiscences by a knock at the door. It was another early riser. Mandela.
“Good morning, how are you?” he said, stepping into Reinders’s office with outstretched hand. “Very well, Mr. President, thank you. And you?” “Well, well but ….” Mandela said, puzzled, “what are you doing?” “I am collecting my things and getting ready to go, Mr. President”. “Oh, I see. And may I ask where you are going?” “Back to correctional services, Mr. President, where I used to serve.”
“Mmmm,” said Mandela, pursing his lips. “I was there 27 years, you know. It was very bad.” He grinned as he repeated, “very bad!” Reinders, flummoxed, offered him a half-smile back. “Now,” Mandela continued, “I would like you to consider staying here with us.” Reinders examined Mandela’s eyes with astonishment.
“Yes. I am quite serious. You know this job. I don’t. I am from the bush. I am ignorant. Now, if you stay with me, it would be just one term, that is all. Five years. And then, of course, you would be free to leave. No, please understand: this is not an order. I would like to have you here only if you wish to stay and share your knowledge and your experience with me.”
Mandela smiled. Reinders smiled, wholeheartedly now. “So,” Mandela continued, “what do you say? Will you stay with me?” Amazed as he was, Reinders did not hesitate. “Yes, Mr. President. I will. Yes. Thank you.”
At which point his new boss gave him his first task: to gather together all the presidential staff, including the cleaners and gardeners, in the cabinet room for a meeting. The new president walked among them, shaking hands with each of the hundred or so people assembled, saying a few words to each, in Afrikaans where appropriate. Then he addressed them all. “Hello, I am Nelson Mandela. If any of you prefer to take the severance package, you are free to leave. There is no problem. But I beg you, stay! Five years, that is all. You have the knowledge. We need that knowledge, we need that experience of yours.”
Every single member of the presidential staff stayed.