The life and legacy of Nelson Mandela – 10 Lessons for HR Professionals


The life and legacy of Nelson Mandela – 10 Lessons for HR Professionals
By Marius Meyer

On 5 December 2013 South Africa and the world have lost one of the greatest leaders of mankind, Nelson Mandela.   It is now almost three years later, and the question is whether the world is a better place today.  We mourned his passing, but we continue to celebrate his legacy as we are reminded of his legacy today.  Throughout South Africa and the rest of the world, people will honour his legacy by doing good deeds for their fellow human beings.  Recognised globally as an icon, no other South African has had more impact on so many people throughout the world than Nelson Mandela. He is the best example of true moral leadership in the most difficult of times. We have much to thank Tata Madiba for one of the most successful political transitions the world has ever seen. His biggest achievement was the eradication of apartheid, thereby helping the country to turn around from an oppressive regime to a fully-fledged modern democracy.

Perhaps it is not a co-incidence that one of South Africa’s top HR professionals, Professor Shirley Zinn launched her book “Swimming Upstream” recently.  The book covers major lessons in life as she grew up in the Cape Flats during some of the worst years of our apartheid past.  Like Mandela, Shirley refused to accept life as a victim.  She prioritised education and career growth as two key aspects for achieving success in life and business, despite all the odds against her.  It is therefore very appropriate for Shirley to dedicate a full chapter of her book to South Africa today.  In that chapter she refers continuously to Mandela’s life and contribution to South Africa. She asserts: “Having experienced Mandela’s leadership, we cannot slip back into anything less.”

Today I want to reflect on the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela.  Specifically, I want to internalise these lessons in my own life, not only at home, but also at work.  As the leader of the liberation struggle and later as first democratic president of South Africa, Mandela’s life provides us with a powerful legacy – and some profound lessons for human resource (HR) professionals:

  1. Humanity: Nelson Mandela epitomises what humanity is all about – the continuous pursuit of what humanity stands for – a world where human dignity is respected and valued. As HR professionals we are champions for humanity in the workplace.  Mandela reminded us: “Our definition of the freedom of the individual must be instructed by the fundamental objective to restore the human dignity of each and every South African.”
  2. Diversity: No other leader taught us more about diversity than Nelson Mandela, his whole life was about creating and building respect for diversity, not only at a political level, but also in all spheres of society, including the workplace.   The biggest irony of Mandela’s legacy is that while he achieved freedom for blacks, he also realised freedom for whites – freeing them too from apartheid and the belief of white supremacy that dominated South Africa for many decades.  He also warned against tribalism and xenophobia, two challenges that still need to be addressed in South Africa.  HR professionals play a fundamental role to create diverse workplaces, and more focussed work still needs to be done to attain true inclusive workplaces.
  3. Accountability: Mandela was a strong believer in accountability in both the private and public sectors.  In particular, leaders should be held accountable.  He said: “If you want to take an action and you are convinced that this is a correct action, you do so and confront that situation.”   HR professionals should be much stronger in striving towards accepting accountability for their work, and not blame line managers and other stakeholders when things go wrong.
  4. Adaptability: Mandela’s life is a wonderful example of adaptability. As he asserted: “Human beings have got the ability to adjust to anything.”   He learned that throughout his life, and ultimately adapted from revolutionary to prisoner to politician to president. HR professionals should adapt to changing circumstances, and as business partners ensure that HR strategy and services are continuously adapted to the needs of organisations and the realities of the changing environment.
  5. Change: Mandela said that while it is difficult to change society, it is even more difficult to change yourself.  While sticking to our values and principles as HR professionals, we need to build, develop and change ourselves every day if we want to become better at what we do.
  6. Conflict: The greatest part of Mandela’s life was about dealing with conflict. He learned and grown as an individual through these tough experiences, and was prepared to die for his convictions.  Mandela expressed his view on conflict as follows: “One of the most important lessons I learnt in my life of struggle for freedom and peace is that in any conflict there comes a point when neither side can claim to be right and the other wrong, no matter how much that might have been the case at the start of a conflict.”  HR and Employment Relations professionals specifically are facilitators of conflict resolution in the workplace, and their skills in dealing with conflict situations are of paramount importance.
  7. Integrity: In a country still plagued by fraud and corruption, Mandela’s example reminds us of the importance of integrity.  He valued integrity throughout his life.  Referring to corruption, he labelled South Africa as a “sick society.”  HR professionals should be people of integrity and build ethical organisation cultures to create more ethical organisations and ultimately an ethical society.
  8. Relationships: Life is about relationships at the individual and collective level.  As a strong supporter of worker rights, he believed in good relationships between employers and employees. Likewise, he established good relationships with the business community.  HR managers are key builders of relationships in the workplace and broader society.
  9. Opportunity: Mandela said: “You pass through this world once and opportunities you miss will never be available to you again.”  Every day HR professionals are faced with many opportunities of making a difference, we must seize these chances of having impact.
  10. Leadership: Mandela’s greatest legacy was his leadership during moments of suffering and opportunity. He excelled as a leader in the most challenging times.  As HR professionals we have to show greater leadership in leading our HR functions and coaching managers in people skills.


SABPP Committee and staff members mourn the passing of Nelson Mandela in 2013.
Back:  Sithembele Stofile, Frans Barnard, Kenneth Nxumalo, Lebo Mbuli
Front: Sarie Pretorius, Cabangile Sithole, Belia Nel, Kate Dikgale-Freeman, Kathleen Beckett, Bongi Ndaba, Tshwarelo Mothopeng.

In conclusion, the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela offers HR professionals with ample opportunities to live his legacy on a daily basis.  Inequality and skills gaps can not be perpetuated. A few years back Mandela made this statement: “The future of South African businesses will be evaluated largely on its human resources development.” Skills development is at the centre of human resource management, and as a community of professionals it is our duty to society to rise to the occasion in developing the people of South Africa.

Likewise, Mandela labelled affirmative action “corrective action,” and twenty two  years after the birth of our democracy, we are still haunted by the reality of apartheid’s inequalities. Thus, HR professionals could play a key role in addressing the two national challenges of poor people development and inequality, given the fact that these two issues go hand in hand.  Therefore, rectifying these gaps is not only key to sound people management, but also an imperative for nation-building and stability.

However, today, as we remember Mandela, it is not only the sceptics, but broader society who will echo Shirley Zinn’s words that “Madiba left a great void in the leadership of our country.”  The question is whether other leaders in political parties, business, government, labour and broader society are able to rise to the occasion and lead the country and our organisations to the type of country Mandela was dreaming about.

As a community of more than 120 000 HR professionals in South Africa, we are a strong group of change agents who can continue being the custodians of humanity in the workplace and socio-economic environments of employees.   SABPP will continue to play our role in building the country Mandela was dreaming about.  Last month SABPP launched HR Citizen, an HR volunteering initiative to mobilise HR professionals as socio-economic change agents.  We are going to drive change within and outside our organisations as active citizens.  This drive includes implementing the National Development Plan (NDP) within our sphere of influence and in society at large.

We accept the challenge posed to us by Shirley Zinn: “If we only did ten percent of what Madiba did, we could move this country forward significantly.”  As Nelson Mandela said: “What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead.”


Marius Meyer is CEO of the SA Board for People Practices (SABPP), the HR quality assurance and professional body. He is also an advisory board member of Partners for Possibility, and a member of the Institute of Directors.  He recently launched the HR Citizen campaign to mobilise HR professionals in volunteering their skills and service to make a difference to society by addressing the major socio-economic challenges faced by the country.

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