On Dec. 4, 1991, less than two years after his release from 27 years of imprisonment, black South African hero Nelson Mandela visited the New York headquarters of Black Enterprise. His purpose: to meet with America’s most powerful African American business executives, entrepreneurs, and leaders, including the founders of multimillion-dollar companies, as well as bankers, investors, lawyers, and corporate professionals. His mission: remaking an economy for a new South Africa.
“We asked for this meeting because of our desire to learn the principles and strategies of economic empowerment for blacks in our country,” Mandela said as he addressed us in the executive boardroom of BE, flanked by New York Mayor David N. Dinkins and me. “Until we have a very strong business class, it is going to be difficult for us to make real progress.”
By now, we all knew that Mandela had the intellect, influence, sheer determination, and faith to move mountains. He’d demonstrated that on a global, supernatural scale as an iconic symbol and inspiration of the worldwide movement to bring down South Africa’s racist apartheid regime, a system of oppression and exploitation that had been in place for centuries. Attempts to bury and destroy Mandela, beginning with his imprisonment in 1964, only amounted to his resurrection, with unstoppable power and irresistible moral authority.
On this particular visit, Mandela was focused on nothing less than completing the transformation of the country he loved and sacrificed his entire life for. He knew that economic opportunity for black South Africans, not just political enfranchisement, was necessary for real, lasting progress–mirroring the raison d’Ãªtre of be. Within three years of visiting our offices, Mandela was elected president in the first democratic election in South African history, and I was recruited to serve as a catalyst in bringing the first multinational business enterprise into the new South Africa–a $100 million Pepsi-Cola franchise, of which black men and women were the primary owners and operators.
In so many ways, the triumph of Mandela was and remains a victory for all of us as African Americans and, indeed, anyone in the world yearning for justice and freedom from racism and oppression, as evidenced by Mandela being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, along with the man he would succeed as South Africa’s head of state, F.W. de Klerk. Yes, thanks to his resolute commitment to reconciliation, not retaliation, Mandela even won the cooperation of his jailers in order to rebuild his beloved country. In so doing, he set a new standard for what was achievable by people of conscience in a just democracy–an example that both helped to inspire and was echoed by the election of Barack Obama to the presidency of the United States, just 14 years after Mandela was elected president of South Africa.
Nelson Mandela left this mortal plane on Dec. 5, 2013, 22 years almost to the day after he met with black American business leaders in his quest to lay the economic framework for a new South Africa. Our deep mourning at his passing continues but, thank God, cannot last, just as 27 years of prison could neither contain nor diminish Mandela’s devotion to his cause. Even now our grief is being overwhelmed by the joyful power of his life and legacy. Indeed, Mandela’s global inspiration and wise countenance will shine through all eternity. Our hero has gone to glory, glory much deserved.