By Colin Chapman
Everyone remembers a red-letter day in their life, and one of those came late in January 1992 in Davos, Switzerland, when I joined others to shake the hand of Nelson Mandela.
While his serene and smiling face were compelling, I had to glance down at those hands. These were hands that for 27 years had broken rocks at he infamous Robbin Island, a grim prison off the coast of South Africa, where Mandela, a lawyer , and other members of the African National Congress, had been incarcerated because of their opposition to apartheid.
Mandela had been invited to join his former jailer, President F.W. de Klerk on the platform of the World Economic Forum by this august organization’s founder, Professor Klaus Schwab, who has established an reputation for bridge building.
As Mandela was to repeat many times in subsequent years, he said he could never forget, but he had forgiven those who had stolen so much of his adult life. In a memorable speech, I remember, particularly, the following passage, “we do not ask for pity. We do not face the world with a begging bowl. We look to the future with dignity. We know that we will eradicate poverty through our own skills and labour. We recognise that our country has, because of apartheid, gone through a traumatic experience, no less than the wars that have been fought in Europe and elsewhere.”
The whole speech is worth reading today, and there is a link to it below. But there was something else. Mandela talked of an investment strike by private enterprise, and called for nationalization of key part of the ecionomy.
Later, in Davos, after meeting world leaders, he was talked out of it. They convinced him the world would invest in the “New South Africa”, as everyone began to call it.
I was later able to play my own small part in the New South Africa. My then employer, the Financial Times Group, took a 50 per cent stake in the country’s main financial newspaper, Business Day and in the weekly Financial Mail. We started the African Business Channel, on radio and television, and I became its first chairman, a task which took me to Johannesburg frequently.
When Mandela became president, I was able to see him in action, and got to know some of his ministers, particularly Trevor Manuel, who was to become South Africa’s longest serving finance minister.
Despite the success of the early years of Mandela’s presidency – and the global goodwill towards him and his government, the new South Africa faltered after he left Pretoria. His successor, Thabo Mbeke, also a lawyer, held office for nine years, and president over solid economic growth engineered bhy Manuel, but was unable to fix other problems that became endemic, including corruption and crime. The current president, Jacob Zuma, has also watched problems mount, and few now talk of the New South Africa.
But Mandela will never be forgotten.