Remembering Nelson Mandela: A Reflection
In light of Mandela’s recent passing, Professor Emeritus Jean-Pierre Jeannet shares this reflection on a not-so-chance meeting:
I have had an opportunity to meet Nelson Mandela as part of the Emirates Global Business forum held in Dubai in the year 2000. I received an invitation to join the conference during an already busy travel time. After some discussions with my family, we decided I should attend the conference as session chair since Nelson Mandela, who the year before had stepped down as President of South Africa, would be the keynote speaker. One caveat, however: I was to bring home a picture with Nelson Mandela! And so I took off in March of 2000 to spend 4 days in Dubai.
The conference was held in the Jumeirah Beach Resort Hotel just outside the city of Dubai, and an opening breakfast for speakers was scheduled in the nearby Burj Al Arab Tower overlooking the Gulf. There, on the morning before the conference was to start, and in the restaurant Al Muntaha Restaurant some 200 meters above the Persian Gulf were seated all invited speakers and their hosts from Dubai, as well as government ministers and other dignitaries. The breakfast had already started when suddenly the elevator doors opened and Nelson Mandela stepped out and approached the seated tests. Everyone immediately got up and formed a large semi circle around Mandela who began to greet every guest, asking them abut where they came from, and engaging in small talk and even joking about his hearing aids to an executive from Siemens. Then suddenly he motioned to the back of the room and asked “Young man, what are you doing back there. Step Forward!”. It was a waiter, obviously an immigrant as many of the employees were, and he asked him to take his place in the semi circle together with the ministers in traditional arab dress, the executives, and the professors, engine the waiter just as he had everyone else about his whereabouts, and smoothly moving on continuing his greetings of all present. This majestic gesture, demonstrating to all present that there should be no difference based upon status, remains firmly implanted in my mind and still gives me goose bumps when I think about it.
At the same conference, I met a Saudi businessman who had come to attend simply because of Mandela. I mentioned to him that I had come also because elf Mandela, and that my family expected me to bring home a picture with him. No problem, I was told, and he, the Saudi, would take care of it. After three days we were finally seated for the final dinner, and I still had not yet gotten my picture. I was seated with the Saudi businessman and our table was net to the honorary table with Nelson Mandela. As my back was against the table with Mandela, my Saudi acquaintance mentioned to me that I should just follow him quickly once he would get up, and that he would await the end of the dinner for that. And so it happened, that I notice a stirring behind me, the Saudi jumped up, and a short whistle from him produced a photographer who had been waiting in the bushes nearby. I rand behind the Saudi and the photographer and stood next to them as they asked for and got permission to take a photo with Mandela. But then they suddenly left, and I stood alone next to Nelson Mandela. When I indicated to him that I had come all the way from the US to bring home a photo of himself, he took my hand, and realising that the photographer had vanished, asked everyone “Will someone please organise a photographer so that this man can get his picture!”. While we were waiting, he kept holding my hand, smiling, and a photo could finally be taken. After thanking profusely, I retired to my room and called my family to report the big event. There was just one problem: I could never locate the photographer who had taken the picture! So I came home, enriched by this story, but without the photo. Only months later I received by email from the Saudi businessman the photo he had taken and it shows me on the photo, awaiting my turn to greet Mandela. But what I remember was the kindness of Nelson Mandela to respond to me, a person he did not know, in such a gracious way, just as he asked the immigrant waiter during the breakfast meeting to join the ranks of dignitaries on the same level.