The words and lessons of Nelson Mandela underlined AHRI’s International Women’s Day breakfast this year.
In the six years it’s been running, AHRI’s International Women’s Day breakfast has probably never been so important. The combined effect of #metoo and the increasing demand for a closing of the pay gap means more and more people are looking to the people department for answers.
An unlikely woman
It was only through a twist of fate that Zelda la Grange is now someone who regularly graces a stage, receiving the full attention of a professional audience. It’s a fact of which she’s aware. Her claim to fame is that she was the aide to Mandela, both during his time as president and then during his busy retirement.
She makes no bones about who she was before she met him: a twenty-four year old who wanted a secretary job in the government mostly because the offices were close to her house.
“I was a proper racist,” she told the audience. It’s an idea worth keeping in mind, she said, that people won’t question a system of beliefs that benefits them. Her family had conservative politics which at the time meant being supporters of apartheid. When she took the job, many of her peers felt it was shameful for her to “serve tea to a black man”.
“How can I be friends with the enemy of my people?” she recalled herself asking.
But her journey was the same as most of white South Africa – from mistrust and fear, to one of abiding respect for the man they imprisoned for 27 years. La Grange drew the parallel between this journey and the one the world is on when it comes to embracing gender equality.
As a way of helping that happen, she shared Mandela’s greatest lessons for implementing change, couching them in anecdotes from her nineteen years by his side.
Speak their language
When she first had a conversation with Mandela, in his offices as one of his youngest employees, la Grange couldn’t understand a word he was saying. It wasn’t that she didn’t understand the language – it was closer to the opposite. He came up, shook her hands and started speaking the native tongue of many white South Africans – Afrikaans.
Initially her brain couldn’t comprehend his sentences. This was the last man she expected to be using what she herself called the “the language of his oppressor”. But Mandela had learned it during his decades in prison, and used it to disarm the white South Africans he would meet in political life. It was his belief that the best way to reach someone’s heart was through their own tongue.
La Grange pointed out that this needn’t include learning a new language. By putting yourself in the shoes of the people you would like to change, and taking on the body language and way of communicating to which they respond, you can make tremendous progress.
Though Mandela was known for his kind eyes, and understanding manner, la Grange made a point of mentioning his steelier side.
Before one of her first trips overseas, she was quite late to the airport but didn’t think much of it. However, when she arrived at the plane, the door had already been closed. Entering, she met a hushed cabin. Seeking to disperse the tension, she erupted with a bubbly, “Good morning Mr. President!”
Mandela didn’t smile, and the rest of the room mirrored his behaviour. “That’s the last time you’ll be late,” he said coldly. She made sure it was, she laughed.
The lesson for anyone who wants to see change happen is clear, la Grange said. It’s not a matter of being nice and going along to get along. At some point your capacity for understanding has to be backed up by determination and discipline – punctuality not being the least of it.
In 1998, then President Mandela went to court to face questions from the legal team of South African rugby boss Dr Lulyt. La Grange was upset that he even deigned to go, but was flabbergasted by Mandela’s decision to walk up to and greet the opposition council as his first order of business. Later she asked him why he’d done this. He gave her two explicit lessons.
Firstly, “The way you approach people will determine the way they treat you.” And secondly, “never allow the enemy to decide the field of battle.”
So again she pointed out that change isn’t simply a warm fuzzy thing that springs naturally from a loving attitude. It’s a firm, difficult task that needs to be met seriously – and it begins within. That was one of Mandela’s lessons from prison – and why he emerged from behind bars with such equanimity. “It is easier to change others than to change yourself,” he said.
Hear Julia Gillard, Gill Hicks and other leaders and experts at the AHRI Inclusion and Diversity Conference in Sydney on Thursday 3 May 2018. Early bird registration closes 5 April 2018.