Waiting for the World Cup in a ‘United’ Nation

I’m in Johannesburg for the beginning of World Cup. Although I learned a lot about soccer from watching my kids play when they were young, I’m not that knowledgeable about the game, players, etc. But the excitement in the air is palpable. South Africans and most of the world (the US lags here) are huge soccer fans.

Today we visited the site of the FIFA World Cup Kick-Off Celebration Concert on June 10, as the stadium is rapidly being transformed for this celebratory event (to be televised around the world). The stadium is located in Soweto, the township created for blacks under the South African Apartheid government and the location of many of the events in the struggle against apartheid.

One young woman working on the show was born in South Africa, but had spent quite a bit of her adult life in England. She and her brother were helping with event production when I met her and had a short conversation about what South Africa means to her.

She embodied what it means to have great pride in one’s homeland. In the course of our discussion she shared that she had written a letter to Nelson Mandela — so moved was she by a recent rugby match at Orlando stadium.

If you saw the film Invictus, or have read much about apartheid, you know that a rugby match played a powerful role in re-uniting South Africa after apartheid, thanks to the wisdom of their leader Nelson Mandela. That story portrayed a rugby match some 15 years ago, but just last week another ‘moment in history’ occurred during a rugby match, this time at the famed Orlando Stadium, where the FIFA World Cup Kick-Off Celebration Concert will be held. Because World Cup practice games are being held all over South Africa right now, a stadium in Pretoria (a largely white Afrikaner stronghold) was unavailable for a finals rugby match; it was subsequently moved to Orlando stadium, in the heart of Soweto, still largely a black community.

The game was immensely moving to South Africans as they watched again the uniting of white and black in song, sport and shared nationality over their rugby team. The young woman I met was so moved by the images at the match, she wrote Nelson Mandela a letter. It began, “I love you,” and continued to describe her love of South Africa and her intense gratitude toward Mr. Mandela and his leadership in healing her beautiful country. It reminded me of how much of the time we become cynical of our political leaders and feel far from this deep sense of “love” and “gratitude.” Rarely are there leaders who reach the wisdom of Mandela and who act in accordance with it.

As I thought about great leadership, it seems to me that the wisdom of a great leader is their ability to see a Truth and help those along who don’t see it. In Mandela’s case, the truth he saw was the equality of all humans — regardless of color — but his real strength came in forgiving those who did not see it. It was his forgiveness and then continued effort to help people understand this truth that led him to be one of the most effective leaders ever.

This is wisdom and compassion working hand in hand with one another; when that happens, people really do ‘fall in love’ with their leaders.