Nelson Mandela and the Power of a Big Idea

Suddenly it dawned on me that today is Mandela Day, and that all these people had woken up early to pay their homage to the great icon and perhaps fulfill their 67 minutes of community service.

Prof Dumisani Moyo's picture

Associate Professor, University of Johannesburg

July 18th, 2014

Every morning when I want to avoid traffic and having to pass through many traffic lights I take a suburban route that passes right in front of Nelson Mandela's home in Houghton. So this morning I did the same, even though I had woken up much earlier and there was clearly no traffic as yet. The power of habit. I had to wake up early and get to the office to think and write about a 'big idea' that my boss had asked me to submit for our 2015 strategy, having submitted one the previous day which didn't meet the mark.

But approaching the Mandela home this morning, I see something different. Lots of cars parked on either side of the road and people milling around, reminiscent of the weeks and months before his death when the paparazzi literally camped outside his house, waiting to break the news about his death. Those blood-thirsty paparazzi!

So what was happening at the Mandela home today? Was it some post-death ceremony taking place the way we do back home a year after the death of a loved one? Do they do that as well here in South Africa, I wonder. I'm sure they would, but that's something they would perhaps do in Qunu and not here in the suburbs ... Suddenly it dawned on me that today is Mandela Day, and that all these people had woken up early to pay their homage to the great icon and perhaps fulfill their 67 minutes of community service. So today, many South Africans of different color and creed, and people around the world will put aside a few minutes of their time to think about Mandela and do something positive in recognition of his contribution to the freedom of this great nation.

Many should be struggling to find that big idea for something to do with their 67 minutes that would capture the essence of this important day, just like me struggling to come up with a big idea for my boss. I started reflecting about this. Mandela didn't have big money to back up his big ideas. I'm sure he didn't even have a budget to back it up. But we do have big money to support our big ideas ... I began to think about what it is that makes an idea a big idea, and I decided it's too early to come up with an answer to this.

I started to think about the other question my boss had posed - what would success look like after implementing that big idea? And I think about Mandela's big idea of a free and democratic South Africa, and I start to imagine that what we are living in South Africa today should surely be the picture of the success of Mandela's big idea - a free, plural, diverse and democratic society. But is it that simple? Is that picture a universal picture of the reality of the new South Africa? How does the mother of a child that dies after falling into a pit latrine at school read that picture? Or the parents whose children miss almost an entire year's learning because somebody decided to dump textbooks in a river? Or communities that still use open toilet and bucket systems and spend most of the year burning tyres and blocking roads to draw attention to poor service delivery? The jobless youth? And the families who lost breadwinners at the Marikana shooting? Of course this contrasts with the picture of the new South Africa for that businessman who is now able to spread his wings and set shop wherever he wants in the world after the collapse of apartheid.

I realise painting a picture of the  success of a big idea isn't that easy after all - even for Nelson Mandela's big idea which would look so obvious...

So instead of thinking about and rewriting that big idea, I thought I would spend my first 67 minutes of the day writing these few paragraphs in the hope that they will not only remind us of that truly phenomenal individual but encourage us to keep searching for even bigger ideas!

Happy Mandela Day!


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