When Richard Branson and I began talking about a group of global elders, it was a dream of harnessing and harvesting experience, wisdom and moral authority – global leaders who might intervene in an increasingly divided global village. Most of the very serious problems we were facing such as climate change, poverty, pandemics, refugees and many violent conflicts only had a hope of being resolved by long-term global solutions. Most of those in power think short-term, often focussed on getting re-elected. The Elders would be a group whose strength was not based on economic, political or military power but on integrity and respect they had earned; by the way they had lived their lives. We both agreed that there was only one person whose extraordinary life and leadership had won respect all around the world and without whom, we didn’t think this project could take off – that was Nelson Mandela.
He was the one person who represented this currency of moral authority more than any other. He had put his life at risk for his people, spent 27 years in jail to win equality and freedom for black South Africa – which was still, then, the only country in the world which had racism enshrined in its constitution. Madiba wanted to see his country unified and was willing, as he stepped out of jail, once more to put off his personal life and serve his time again – only this time, as President.
To lead with such remarkable forgiveness, compassion and inclusiveness inspired people in every country. But building a Rainbow Nation in his own country required working with the apartheid regime – the very people who had killed and imprisoned so many of those he had fought for.
When he put on the Springboks blazer at the Rugby World Cup it was as if he was wearing the uniform of his oppressor, but his message was so clear; South Africa could only move on if the wounds of apartheid could begin to heal with the direct involvement and collaboration of all South Africans, whatever colour. It was a day he made a whole nation proud to be South African. He also wanted South Africa to face the dark history of apartheid straight on and he encouraged Archbishop Tutu to use the Truth and Reconciliation Committee as the principal tool for exposing what had happened and so begin the process of healing.
It was in 2001, in Richard’s London home, that we made our first pitch to the great man. His first reaction was “Why on earth would those in power would want a bunch of old timers meddling in their affairs”. With many smart people helping us flesh out the project and what potential roles for The Elders might be, the great man saw more and more situations in which The Elders could and should have a role to play, which were currently not finding solutions. Over the next few years he and Graça Machel became our founders and champions and sent out all the initial invitations to those who were to form the first group of Elders.
He would often remind us – all of us working on The Elders project – that unless you can see the difference of your actions in the village, with those that are suffering the most, then you are doing the wrong thing. That instruction is as powerful and telling today as it was when he first said it to us.
Madiba was famous for his good humour, his charm and his easy-going, yet humble way of getting the attention of everyone in the room. He could also be a determined hustler when he needed something. When someone told you Madiba was on the phone – in my case for his fundraising concerts for Aids – I remember having a mixture of deep excitement and dread; excitement that the great man was on the other end of my phone and dread, because I knew that whatever he asked, I wouldn’t be able to say no. He enjoyed making mischief and with a musician’s sense of timing, he knew exactly how long to pause when he delivered his deadpan wisecracks.
We feel so very privileged to have spent some time with him, to have brainstormed and built something with him and seen up close how his determination compassion and humility can turn the world around.
His patience was also extraordinary, there was no-one who came near him who didn’t dream of having their photograph with him, (even those in my country who had called for his execution as a terrorist many years before). It made me think of one of those fairground novelties where you stick your head through a board to appear alongside some childhood hero. As his legend grew, so there would be more and more expected of him. He never encouraged the mythmaking but he knew his all encompassing global status could be used for good and was always prepared to trade on it.
He always put the service of those in need at the top of his agenda and he showed the world that we could all slide that dividing line between them and us – with less and less whom we push away as Them and more and more those we bring close and call Us.
There’s a new generation of brave and determined activists and idealists, many of whom are the ‘Sparks of Hope’ with us now. I’m sure that they, you and we, can all start to learn to walk in Madiba’s shoes, part of his growing family, who can create Madiba’s Rainbow World. That’s the place I want to live – a world in which there is no Them – only Us.
– Peter Gabriel.
There has been a #WalkTogether for #Mandela100 project, which has come to fruition on this 100th anniversary. There are 100 young activists who have been selected and are gathering in Johannesburg to celebrate Mandela’s 100th birthday.
Watch and share the livestream of the#WalkTogether with Sparks of Hope event: Wednesday, 18 July at 8:30am/NY, 1:30pm/London, 2:30pm/Johannesburg on The Elders’ Facebook page