tribute Bertie Lubner

Two people have had a major influence on my life: my father, Morrie Lubner, and Nelson Mandela. With Mandela it's not just what you read about him and what he did, it's what makes up the man. Let me tell you about a few incidents to illustrate my point.

Just after 9/11 the world was devastated. The World Economic Forum decided it had to play a pivotal role in trying to settle things. They asked Mandela to be the opening speaker at the plenary in Davos the following January - an incredible honour. They saw him as a visionary. But his staff said no because it would be too cold. So the WEF decided to move to New York for the first time in their history. Klaus Schwab wrote to me and Chris Liebenberg to ask if we could persuade Mandela to come to New York.

But the very day Klaus Schwab's letter arrived I was rushed to hospital to have a quintuple bypass. And all I could think of was that letter. It was an unfinished task. So I'm partially recovering in hospital when I hear this voice at the door: "Can I come in and see the young man?" He always called me "young man". And he had just arrived back that morning from extensive overseas travel; had heard that I was in hospital, went home for a shower and was at my bedside at 10am. A man with so much else on his plate came to see me! My wife was rather taken aback. Of course there was chaos at the hospital. People were lining up to see him. And all I could think of was that I should ask him about New York. But he wouldn't let me talk. He sat next to me and told me about his travels. I kept trying to interrupt him but he wouldn't allow me. He put his hand on my shoulder and said, "When you come to see me, you do the talking. I have come to see you, so I do the talking."

Another story (one of the most emotional moments of my life) was when Ben Gurion University in Israel (of which I am vice-chairman) wanted to give Mandela an honorary doctorate. But he had already visited Israel, the first person from the new government to do so, and couldn't go back just then. So we arranged a ceremony at the Baxter Theatre in Cape Town. A song had been composed for him, telling his life story, and was sung by two wonderful opera singers. As I was listening I was overcome by how this remarkable man had been denied the simple things in life for 27 years, prevented from having his children and wife around him, denied those things that are most important to a person. I started to cry. He put his hand on my knee and said, "Thank you for sharing this moment with me." Of course that made me even more emotional.

The next part of the ceremony featured a women's choir. I knew that they were all blind. They started to sing. Mandela got up. He clearly wanted to do his Mandela shuffle. I said, "Madiba, do you know they're all blind?" He replied: "I want to go up and let them see me." He went up while they were singing and one by one put his hand on each woman's face and spoke to each one. They all started to cry. So did I, and the rest of the audience of 800.

That is his most marked characteristic, his ability to recognise people and acknowledge them. Not for politics or grandeur, but because he is really interested. I was at a meeting in Paarl when my phone rang and I recognised Zelda's voice. She said: "He needs to speak to you but his plane is waiting." So he came on the line: "You know, young man, my conscience has been suffering these last few days. I am looking at this picture of this little girl on my desk and I say to Zelda I must be getting old, I don't recognise this grandchild of mine."

It turns out the child had a rare disease. Her facial muscles were collapsing. She would soon need life support. Her mother had written to Mandela for help, and despite the thousands of requests he received along similar lines, this one in particular was eating at him. "Young man, please help me. I've been waking in the mornings worrying." He was on the point of going overseas but felt that he couldn't leave without something being done about this little girl's suffering.

This was the start of the Smile Foundation. The only doctor in the world at that time with appropriate expertise was a Canadian surgeon. We persuaded him to come out with his team, do the necessary operations and train a local team. Mandela visited the little girl in hospital. The Canadian surgeon told Mandela that he was grateful for giving him the opportunity to be part of something that he would remember for the rest of his life.

One more anecdote: As part of the centenary celebrations of the PG Group in 1997 we were playing golf when I saw my wife tearing towards me in a golf cart. I was immediately fearful. What could have happened? "Bertie, Mandela wants to come to the function tonight to pay tribute to the family." Well, how do you say no to that one? So we rearranged everything, but when he came that evening he slipped in through a side door. Of course when he came in the crowd just erupted. We were taking family photographs when he walked in and said, "Since when am I not a member of the family?' I didn't come here for the function, I came here for the photograph."

I had the privilege of being part of the group that accompanied Madiba the first time he went back to Robben Island. I asked some of his fellow prisoners: "Why was Mandela so special?" They said two things. First, his consistency of attitude, his calmness. And second, his philosophy: "You won't achieve things by doing what others have done to you, but by what you do to others. Don't ever allow yourselves to become full of hate and revenge. The cycle will change" And it did, how lucky for all of us.

This is why the world is recognising him, not for one thing but for all the qualities the world wants to see in a leader. A person with all these qualities becomes an icon to the world. This is Mandela.
(2007)