The Presidential Years

As a continuation of this nation-building and confidence-building, he had his own obsession to bring business to connect with the very poor, the poorest of the poor. He would take them by the hand, the Anton Rupert’s, the Douw Steyn’s, all the major rich people, and took them to the poorest areas of South Africa. I remember one day he said that one of them said, ‘Is this South Africa!’ because they had no clue about the huge gap between white people and very poor people, black people.

He would go to an area - and the detail of this is very important - he would have the headmaster of the school, for instance, and he would have the community leader and he would have the traditional leader of the area and of course the government official. These four would be the ones to interact with the person who’s going to sponsor a school or a clinic or whatever. Once he introduced them he pulls out and says, ‘Talk to each other. You need a school and you are going to build a school. I don’t want to interfere but you are going to communicate.’ And then the business people themselves would make a plan to bring the builder and to manage these different community representatives to have the school built.

At first sight it was just a school, but if you go deeper you would say he was connecting the very end of the wealthiest with the poorest and it allowed them to have space to talk to each other. So the problem is the need for a school or a clinic. But it is also to connect them to talk, and the message was, ‘You are at the end of the poorest and you are at the end of the richest - you have to meet each other somewhere in the middle’.

You remember very well, he started this work while he was president, but he did it much more when he stepped down because he had the time and he knew that he had not completed the task of nation building. He knew also that the poorest would trust him and the richest would also trust him - I wouldn’t say he was the only one, but he had the strength and power to do it because he was trusted by both sides.

I think there is another important detail: he chose the poorest provinces - KwaZulu-Natal, the Eastern Cape and Limpopo - not that there weren’t poor people in other provinces but those were the worst and if you look at the statistics even today, I think that these provinces are still the poorest. He chose deliberately to focus on these provinces because he knew that he couldn’t spread over all the provinces but could at least choose the most challenged ones.

​ Graca Machel