Editor’s Note: On the eve of Nelson Mandela’s memorial service, Christa Kuljian reminisced about the hour-long interview she conducted with him 13 years earlier, when she was the South Africa office director for the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation. Mandela, who was fresh from serving as South Africa’s first democratically elected president before retiring in 1999, “was quite warm and welcoming and open,” she said. “He was very gracious.” Mandela died on December 5, 2013, at age 95. Excerpts from their interview, republished below, appeared in the October 2001 edition of Mott’s InFocus magazine. Kuljian, a freelance writer based in South Africa, is the author of “Sanctuary” (2013), the true story of an inner-city Johannesburg church that offered refuge to thousands of Zimbabwean refugees.
Late in 2000, Christa Kuljian, director of the Mott Foundation’s South Africa office, interviewed former president Nelson Mandela in his Johannesburg office. This is an edited text of their discussion related to the Foundation’s mission in South Africa, which is to strengthen civil society by building the nonprofit sector and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and their roles throughout the country. The Foundation also supports local South African grantmaking organizations, including the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund, which has received $2.07 million (R16.5 million) from Mott.
Mott: Would you share your thoughts about how best to encourage individual giving in South Africa and your view of the overall field of philanthropy in this country?
Nelson Mandela: “We must appreciate that all over the world, right down the centuries, there have been great religions that have encouraged the idea of giving — of fighting poverty and of promoting the equality of human beings — whatever their background, whatever their political beliefs. That spirit has lived not only in the world but in South Africa as well.
“What we did was to try and exploit that spirit, which was there even before I approached individual South Africans [to give to the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund]. I think we must start from that angle. We must also know that even before liberation in 1994 there were people with resources who tried to share with those who were deprived.
“For example, the private sector granted bursaries [scholarships] for the children of their workers. Some of them built homes for their workers. They had in-service training, which improved the skills of their workers. So that spirit was there. All we did was merely exploit it.”
Mott: Could you discuss the indigenous African roots of giving in South Africa and any particular experiences from your youth that might have built your awareness of giving?
Mandela: “I do not think that I was brought up in a unique society with unique features about giving. As I have said, this is the essence of the great religions of the world — whether you are discussing the Muslim, Hindu, Jewish or Christian religion. It is an essential fundamental principle of all religions, whatever stage of development a society has reached, to sympathize with others and to promote that spirit of equality.
“Therefore, we must not look at the African people, even before they met whites, as if they had something unique, which was not to be found in other societies. Let us not be tempted by those who try to find the unique qualities in a particular group. In this case, among South Africa indigenous people, it reflected what has been evidenced throughout the world.”
Mott: There are a number of efforts under way in South Africa today to provide tax incentives for people to give. In the United States, for example, there are very favorable tax laws to encourage individuals to give. Do you believe such tax incentives would encourage individual giving in South Africa?
Mandela: “Well, I am aware of what the position is in the United States of America. If somebody gives to charity, then he gets a tax incentive, provided the charity is registered in terms of the law. I understand that the legal position is under review in South Africa and that there will soon be a broader set of organizations to which donors can give and claim tax deductions. I am sure that if somebody is giving a sum to charity, he or she should be encouraged to do so by the authorities because the spirit in which we encourage people to give has permeated our society.
“I know in the program that I have at the Nelson Mandela Foundation, in which I take people from the private sector to the poorest of the poor in the countryside to build schools and clinics, some of those business people have raised the question about whether what they give to the community would be exempted from tax. I think that the new legislation under consideration will provide an incentive for giving and encourage additional gifts to charities here in South Africa.”
Mott: What do you see as the role of the NGO sector and civil society in South Africa?
Mandela: “NGOs are an important sector of society because changing the attitude of the community and community development are not just the task of the government. It is the task of the entire society. If the country is going to progress, an idea must not just be held by the government; it must be held by all the key decisionmakers in society. Therefore, if we want any significant development, we must co-opt civil society.
“They [NGOs] have always played a very important role. Some of the mission groups that have been responsible for our education have not been part of the government. In fact, they acted contrary to what the government had planned to do.
“Regarding African education in this country, there was a time when the government took no interest whatsoever in African education. It was the churches, that part of civil society, which bought land, built schools, and employed and paid teachers. People like myself, right from grade eight up to university, I was in missionary schools.
“An initiative was essentially led by civil society because the policy of the government was that Africans must not be taught to graze in pastures which were reserved for the main white group. Civil society, in the form of the churches, challenged that. So you can see how important civil society is to the community.”
Mott: Perhaps part of the success in that educational example you offered was people’s willingness not only to give financial resources but also to volunteer their time?
Mandela: “Well that is true. There are many people who have worked just because they love the community in which they are in, without expecting any financial consideration.”
Mott: What are your thoughts about South Africa’s developing democracy?
Mandela: “The first election in which all South Africans took part was in April, 1994. There were long queues [lines] of employers and employees, black and white. In the sense of Africans, Coloreds and Indians — when I talk about blacks, I mean those three.* Blacks and whites mingled to vote without any hitches. Many people would have expected a great deal of tension, clashes and violence, but it did not occur. That alone showed how the people of South Africa, black and white, were ready for democracy.
“Now we are in the second term of the government of a united nation and the government has done very well. One thing they have done, one thing people could not be blind to, was the achievement this government has made in giving human beings dignity, which they did not enjoy before. They now have dignity.
“Apart from that, we have introduced a rule of law. That never existed for centuries in this country, especially under the apartheid regime, when the law was reduced into disrepute. We have introduced a rule of law into many sections of our public life.
“We have introduced a democratic constitution, which put suvery South African on an equal basis. We have introduced equity into our life, including a uniform educational system. We have also introduced a Bill of Rights, which is not just a piece of paper, but a living document because we have created structures that are totally independent of the government and that can overrule the government, even the president.”
Mott: In your opinion, what are the best ways to build new leadership in South Africa, not only in the NGO sector but in the public and the private sectors?
Mandela: “All I can tell you is that in my experience, especially now after having been in government for five years, I’ve found that South Africa has produced good leaders. These are people who realize that when there is danger, they should be in the forefront and when there is victory to be celebrated, they should be in the background, allowing their colleagues and the ordinary civilians — the man in the street — to rejoice and to celebrate that victory.
“There is nothing to popularize a person. Only humility, which is the ability to remain in the background and to put others in the front light. There are people here who, whatever the debate is on a particular issue, their dominating idea is that at the end of the debate we must emerge stronger than we were before and closer to one another.
“They are there already in the field. There are leaders who know that however furious the debate, there are good men and women in all population groups — amongst blacks, amongst whites, and amongst Afrikaans and English speaking people. Those good men and women can be mobilized to ensure that South Africa is united and that the spirit of reconciliation is strengthened and that progress in this country takes place as fast as it can.”
* “Colored” is a term used in South Africa to define people of mixed descent.