When he was asked how he would like to be remembered, former president Nelson Mandela was very clear: “I would like it to be said that, ‘Here lies a man who has done his duty on earth.’ That is all.”
It so happened that I had dinner on Nelson Mandela Square in Sandton, Johannesburg, on the night that he died. At the time I was unaware of his death — like most of South Africa I woke up with the news the next morning. The huge statue in the square and the nearby shop selling memorabilia would probably be the furthest removed from how Madiba himself would like to be remembered, but I suppose he realized that this was inevitable for someone who had become a global icon of freedom and justice.
In the famous Rivonia trial where he received a life sentence for his role in fighting the apartheid system, he said the following of democracy: “It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” Mandela lived for and achieved democracy. He died in a country that is gearing up for only its fifth democratic elections in 2014, at a time when many people are expressing concern about the state of democracy in our country.
I had the privilege of meeting Madiba once when he was president of South Africa. It was nothing formal — my wife worked in the same building in Cape Town where the African National Congress had its regional headquarters, and on a night when he was in the building we waited on a staircase, hoping to catch a glimpse of him as he walked to his car. When he saw us he stopped, smiled and with a friendly “Hello, how are you?” walked over to us and shook our hands to the great chagrin of his body guards.
In my own memories of Madiba, that moment competes with the historical moment of his release from prison in 1990. I was there on the Grand Parade in Cape Town when he made his first public speech and said the following: “I stand here before you not as a prophet but as a humble servant of you, the people. Your tireless and heroic sacrifices have made it possible for me to be here today. I therefore place the remaining years of my life in your hands.”
As accolades are pouring in for a man who has touched the lives of many people around the world, hopefully we will all pause to think how his example can inspire us as we move forward in very uncertain times. And perhaps the easiest way for us to do that is to ask ourselves: “What is our duty on earth?” That is all.
Daniel Malan is the director of the Centre for Corporate Governance in Africa at the University of Stellenbosch Business School (South Africa) and is also a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Values.