26 Fruits


Nelson Mandela

IMG_2129He was one of the greatest human beings of all time. Nelson Mandela’s death leaves us all deprived because we lose a living example of the boundless potential of humanity to do good – if we choose. So on Friday I went down to Trafalgar Square to South Africa House – I suppose it was to ‘pay my respects’ but it was simply something I felt I ought to do. This was a man who had inspired me in a way that no one else ever has.

Of course I never met him but I have a couple of stories of times when I felt close to him. In 1996 I was at Newell and Sorrell where my team designed Royal Mail’s LetterBox – a gift sent to some half a million children who entered the annual letterwriting competition. Each year I would come up with a different theme and we would enjoy writing and designing the booklet for the UK’s primary school children.

LetterboxThat year our theme was ‘World Letters’. I wanted a letter from Nelson Mandela addressed to children. So I asked. I went through a helpful attaché at South Africa House and, miraculously, a few weeks later, a letter from Nelson Mandela arrived on my desk for inclusion in the booklet. This is what he wrote:

“Dear Young Letterwriters of the United Kingdom,

It would be difficult for me to imagine a world without letters. I am sure you have all experienced the joy of receiving a letter and eagerly tearing it open or turning the letter over and over, studying the writing on the envelope, wondering who it is from and speculating as to its contents.


During my life, letters have been a great source of comfort and inspiration to me. When I was imprisoned my letters were censored and I was only allowed to receive a restricted number. How eagerly I awaited the distribution of mail. I was always anxious to obtain news of my family and treasured and read and re-read every single letter. These communications made me realise that I was not forgotten and they strengthened my resolve to fight for a free South Africa, where people of all colours and beliefs could hold their heads high – a country without discrimination. I therefore urge you to write to other young people, especially those in distress, expressing support and encouragement.


Young friends, never give up hope even when you are experiencing difficulties. Cling to your dreams and work ceaselessly towards achieving them. South Africa’s transition to democracy was, in a way, a miracle: a miracle wrought by the faith, hope and perseverance of South Africans, with the help of our friends abroad. They did not forsake their hopes and dreams but battled on until their ideals were attained.


We have a saying in South Africa ‘masakhane’ which means let us build one another together. I encourage you to build one another together to create a better world.


Nelson R Mandela, President of South Africa”


A ‘letter of note’ indeed. Five years later I was in Cape Town for the global conference of Interbrand, the company that had taken over Newell and Sorrell. There were four days of talks, workshops and presentations by Interbrand companies worldwide. One day our conference switched to a venue away from the usual corporate surroundings. A hundred of us met in the early morning to take a boat to Robben Island.

When we arrived we were given a talk and a short tour by Lionel who had been imprisoned with Nelson Mandela. We were shown into the cells where Mandela and others had been locked up for years. But after five minutes we were shepherded away to start the conference in the large hall where prisoners had once eaten their meals. The conference presenter asked us to turn to our neighbour to share our thoughts.

I was next to a lovely woman called Amber from Australia. She found herself on the receiving end of my anger. “This is so crass. How could they bring us here and allow us so little time for exploration and reflection? It violated the humane spirit of the prisoners whose lives we had skimmed over so lightly.” Amber listened to my rant and just said: “I think you should go and spend as much time as you want in those cells. Take it all in.”

Bless you, Amber, that’s what I did. I spent one of the most moving mornings of my life looking into the small artefacts housed in the little boxes on the cell walls. They told such stories of hope, ingenuity, resilience, humanity, generosity. The memory is still vivid and the emotion still raw today.

That might have been the point when I knew I must leave Interbrand and do my own thing. My own thing was to write, to encourage others to express their individual humanity through words because words can change the world. No one ever demonstrated that better than Nelson Mandela.


3 Responses

  1. Neil Baker says:

    That’s a letter worth keeping, and sharing.

    And well done Amber.

  2. Rowena says:

    Masakhane. What a wonderful word.

  3. Jamie Jauncey says:

    Lovely, John. And I’m sure you’ve never regretted that decision.

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