Photo: Mickey Shah, Soul Photography.

Two Powerful Lessons from Mandela for Today’s Precarious World

By Zahid Torres-Rahman, Founder, Business Fights Poverty

Zahid Torres-Rahman, reflects on marking Mandela’s Centenary at the recent Business Fights Poverty Oxford conference and how now is the time to draw strength and inspiration from Mandela’s own example. In particular, the power of purpose and the power of people to make change happen.

It was a beautiful moment when Caroline Modiba, South African soprano, sang Thula Babain front of images of Nelson Mandela in the Nelson Mandela Lecture Theatre of Saïd Business School, University of Oxford this past week; a moving celebration of his centenary on 18 July.

Listening to Caroline sing, and seeing those images of Nelson Mandela, took me back to a specific moment – Sunday, 11 February, 1990. At the time, I was a Maths and English teacher in rural Zimbabwe. I had decided to spend the weekend in Harare. I remember it being a hot day. I was in a taxi stuck in traffic. The radio was on. And then came the announcement… that Nelson Mandela had been released after 27 years of imprisonment.

Many of you will have vivid memories of that moment and of what it meant to you. For me, it was a moment of hope. Giving this year’s Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture, Barack Obama summed it up perfectly:

“It seemed as if the forces of progress were on the march, that they were inexorable.”

That moment, and my wider experience of living and working in Africa, set me on a path that led me, ultimately, to the stage of the Nelson Mandela Lecture Theatre in Oxford, 100 years after he was born. It was incredibly humbling to be able to welcome over 300 individuals from business, civil society and government to Business Fights Poverty Oxford 2018 from the very same stage that Mandela, himself, spoke from on 13th April 2002 when he opened the lecture hall at Saïd Business School named in his honour.

Marking Mandela’s Centenary gave me an opportunity to reflect on this world we find ourselves in right now. As an immigrant into the UK, as a world citizen living in a world where nationalists dominate the news cycle, as the father of two daughters in a world when we are still far off women’s equality, I must admit that at times I wonder whether the forces of progress are starting to be pushed back.

But it is precisely at this moment that we should draw strength and inspiration from Mandela’s own example. In particular, he demonstrated the power of purpose and the power of people to make change happen.

Lesson 1: The Power of Purpose

Purpose gives us focus and resilience. As Mandela says,

“There is nothing like a fixed, steady aim, with an honorable purpose. It dignifies your nature, and ensures your success.”

We must each reflect on the purpose that drives us – as individuals, as organisations.

Whether that is to improve the lives of the more than 1 billion people on our planet who live in extreme poverty. Or the one billion people without access to basic healthcare. Or the three-quarters of a billion people without clean water.

I believe that with a purpose we will never be lost, but without a clear purpose we will never find our way – and certainly not find the resilience we will need in the months and years ahead.

Lesson 2: The Power of People

But while purpose is critical, it is people that turn purpose from a possibility into progress. Mandela mastered the art of building bridges across divides, forging coalitions to achieve a greater good.

In the world we find ourselves in, finding the people who share our sense of purpose and working together, standing up together, has never been more important to accelerate progress towards the world we want to leave our kids, and to defending the progress already made.

Those of us with vision and resources – whether that’s knowledge, resources or networks – must take action. With the ability to act, comes the responsibility to act. Because if not us, then who?

But there is another reason why we must collaborate more deeply than ever – and that is to address the implosion of trust identified by the Edelman Trust Barometer – across all sectors and organisations.

As Professor Frances Frei, Harvard Business School, says:

“Trust is the foundation for everything we do and if we can learn to trust one another more we can have unprecedented human progress”.

I believe the best way to rebuild trust is through action, not words. Working together, authentically and purposefully, to address shared priorities. At Business Fights Poverty, we have a developed an approach to collaboration that focuses on convening the right people to create solutions to shared challenges.

Above all, through our process, our aim is to build deep and authentic relationships. If trust is the foundation of change, then accelerating progress towards the world we want to see means that we must work to rebuild trust.

The theme of this year’s Mandela Day was #ActionAgainstPoverty – let that serve to inspire us – as individuals and as organisations – to rediscover and re-energise our purpose, and to build new bridges to the people who can help us transform that purpose into action.

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