Suntosh R Pillay: The question Mandela would not answer

At the recent 15 year anniversary celebration of the Mandela Rhodes Foundation, the guest speaker, Graça Machel spoke about the corrupting effects of power, and urged the audience of youthful African leaders to remain rooted to their values and stay close to their communities. This idea of power and how power ought to be used responsibly, took my mind back to 10 years ago, when I first had the opportunity to meet Nelson Mandela. He taught me, indirectly, an important lesson about power.

Imagine the scene. The Mandela Rhodes Foundation had selected me as one of 23 young post-graduate students from across Africa to receive a scholarship to further my studies. We were christened Mandela Rhodes Scholars and had the honour of meeting the living patron of this controversially named organisation.

It was 4 March 2008, and my family’s domestic worker for over 20 years had just passed away. She was so excited at this opportunity I had been given, so it was a bitter-sweet morning as I boarded the plane from Pietermaritzburg to Johannesburg for the much-anticipated meeting in Madiba’s Houghton home. The 23 of us waited in the small auditorium and the media was in full force. Cameras went crazy as the former president walked in, as if he’d not already been photographed a million times over before this.

Thankfully, due to my surname, I was lower down the alphabetical list in terms of the order with which we’d be called to have our few minutes of conversation with the global icon. I rehearsed a couple hundred possibilities of how I hoped this dialogue would go when my turn arrived, but they all melted into the ether as the moment morphed into a slightly dissociative and surreal space. After all, Madiba’s famed hype had turned him into the stuff of legends and, despite his protests, his socially-sanctioned saintliness certainly created the expectation that one would be in the presence of a supernatural force. Perhaps I’m overstating it, but I was only 22 and had only just begun my Masters’ degree – so the privilege of this meeting felt like the ecstatic climax of my young existence.

So far, he’d been quite casual to my peers. He asked jokingly whether Robert Mugabe was still president of Zimbabwe, asking that his regards be passed to Ugandan President Museveni, reinforcing the importance of education and studying hard (“Don’t stop at one PhD”, he said), and asking one scholar whether she was related to a boxer with the same surname.

However, beyond my own encounter, it is that of Lindokuhle Nkosi, a scholar from the University of Zululand, that remains etched in my mind.

Lindo was mesmerised by the moment and could not contain her bliss. She then asked Madiba directly to give her “a mission” that she would carry with her for her entire life and make it her life’s singular goal.

Wait. What?!

We were all on tenterhooks due to the enormity of her question – was she really going to take what Madiba says and make it her raison d’etre? And what exactly would Madiba say – “go build 1,000 new schools!” or “End poverty” or “Cure cancer” or “Raise a billion dollars for my charities”? And would we all feel obligated by association to help Lindo in this new mission thrust upon her? Did Madiba have a whole lot of missions just waiting for the asking and was he going to answer with razor precision? Did Lindo have the right to refuse or change the terms and conditions? Madiba paused thoughtfully and made us wait for his response.

I’ve shared this story many times at talks I’ve been invited to give, and I always throw it back to the audience: “What do you think Madiba said?” Before reading ahead, what do you think he said?

Nobody has ever given me the correct answer. I’ve used this as evidence that his emotional intelligence and generosity of spirit was indeed difficult to emulate.

Madiba gave the most morally honest answer one could imagine. He told Lindokuhle that he did not know her well enough to answer that question.

We were horrified! Give us a mission, dammit! We had all, in those few seconds he took to consider his response, become so emotionally invested in his reply, that at the time it was wholly unsatisfying and a massive anti-climax. I remember thinking that he’d just passed up a new opportunity to change the world – 23 times over if we all took up the challenge!

In hindsight, Mandela modelled one of the most valuable lessons I have learnt in leadership: humility and empathy will ensure that you use your power maturely.

Sure, Madiba could have urged Lindokuhle to spend her life working for an NGO back home in rural KwaZulu-Natal. He could have told her to do a myriad of things that, given the moment, would have unfairly burdened this young woman with somebody else’s crown. Instead, he displayed enormous humility by being honest: he neither knew her well enough nor was he egotistical enough to give her a life mission. How could he? What were her values, her political beliefs, her intellectual pursuits, her family background, her own dreams, fantasies and desires? To answer such a question glibly would have been a gargantuan display of arrogance.

And that is where the rub of power lies – in the interpersonal.

Power corrupts when we fail to consider our fellow human beings as humans being in the world, figuring out life, pursuing dreams rooted in intimate personal histories that nobody can know fully unless they have empathetically entered into that person’s world.

To have given an answer to Lindokuhle would have been a denial of her own humanity, her own personhood, her sense of self and self-direction, her agency and ability to develop mastery over her own dreams. Instead, Madiba read the moment with emotional, intellectual and moral honesty, and showed a singularly unique display of humility and empathy. He honoured Lindokuhle and he honoured us, 23 bright-eyed young people, on the cusp of our careers, by refusing to answer a question unfairly asked of him.

As we remember Mandela in his 100th year, this is what stands out for me. DM

Suntosh R Pillay is a clinical psychologist working in the public hospital sector