Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

The Gates Foundation Remembers Nelson Mandela

December 09, 2013

Members of the foundation share their memories of Nelson Mandela.

Bill Gates, Co-Chair

Excerpted from The Gates Notes:

You can see the power of his example in one of my favorite photographs ever. My dad went to visit him in South Africa along with President Jimmy Carter. President Mandela took them to a clinic that cared for infants born with HIV. As reporters and photographers looked on, he picked up one of the babies and held it in his arms. President Carter and my dad did the same. The next day, the image of all three men cradling HIV-positive babies was broadcast throughout South Africa.

It sent a powerful message: that people did not need to be afraid of touching a person with HIV.

It was just one small step, and we still have a long way to go in the fight against AIDS. But Nelson Mandela played a crucial role in the progress we have made so far. I will never forget the example that he set.

Melinda Gates, Co-Chair

Last week saw the passing of one of my personal heroes. I want to share a story when Bill, Nelson Mandela, Graça Machel, and I visited the University of Witwatersrand in 2003. We were onstage with two women, Fatima Bagaria, who was HIV positive, and Eileen Martin, who was in the late stages of AIDS. Mandela has his arms around her, and she passed away not too long after that photo.

 Even as late as 2003, there was a huge stigma with AIDS in South Africa—a reality that shocked Bill and me. That Mandela got right up and put his arm around Eileen—embracing her and saying AIDS shouldn’t be a stigma—is just one small example of his incredible leadership. His warmth and humanity came through, and that big, wide smile says it all. My thoughts and condolences go out to Mandela’s family. He will be deeply missed.

Bill Gates, Sr., Co-Chair

Nelson Mandela was unquestionably one of the great civic leaders of our time. I was very fortunate to spend the better part of a week with him in South Africa in 2002, and was able to see first-hand what a passionate advocate he was for his country. It was an extraordinary lesson for me to see how much President Mandela accomplished in his lifetime despite tremendous adversity including many years in jail. He was, and will always be, a true legend.

Jeff Raikes, Chief Executive Officer

Tricia and I had the opportunity to meet Nelson Mandela back in the ‘90s, when he visited Seattle. It was a humbling and inspirational experience for both of us. Mandela once commented: "People tend to measure themselves by external accomplishments, but jail allows a person to focus on internal ones; such as honesty, sincerity, simplicity, humility, generosity and an absence of variety…You learn to look into yourself." I’m thankful for this great leader who has truly given us wisdom to live by.

Mark Suzman, President, Global Policy & Advocacy

I was privileged to meet Nelson Mandela several times when I was working as a journalist in South Africa in the early 90s and was an unprofessionally enthusiastic attendee at his historic inauguration  in 1994. 

Interviewing him a few weeks into his Presidency as he sat calmly in the official offices that had been first commissioned under the British Empire and previously had held only the white men who had created and overseen apartheid was one of the most inspiring and humbling moments of my life as he flashed his trademark smile and set out a vision for the future of the new rainbow nation he had been so instrumental in bringing into being. Nearly twenty years on as South Africa struggles with the lingering social and economic legacies of apartheid, that vision and the man who embodied it remains the shared inspiration for all its citizens and much of the wider world in seeking a better life for all.

Amy Gipson, Program Officer, Global Libraries:

Who wouldn’t remember meeting Nelson Mandela?!  As we shook hands, I could literally feel the energy travel from his hand into mine, right up my arm and straight into my heart. I was so excited to be that close to a living legend!

He was at the foundation for a meeting with Bill, Melinda and Patty but before he left he walked through the main aisle of 1551 and shook hands with the US Library Program staff who lined his path.  As he shook my hand he looked at me straight in the eye.  Afterwards he held my wrist and reached across the aisle to my colleague Darren and for a moment in time we were connected by Nelson Mandela!  

It was so incredible to be in his presence! Some people were crying.  He touched my friend Lora’s pregnant belly, and I always wondered if her daughter Isabelle felt his presence too?

Someone complimented him on his shirt, I can’t remember who, and the next day he gave the shirt to the foundation as a gift—it’s the shirt that hangs in the new campus today. 

Although the handshake we shared probably only lasted 10 seconds, it will be felt forever!  It was such an honor and blessing and chance of a lifetime.

Sam Dryden, Senior Fellow:

Mandela was the most unique person I’ve ever met.  It always amazed me that someone who had led a revolution and spent decades in prison doing hard labor could come out and be as constructive and unifying as he was – and it was reflected in his smile and his laughter.  I saw him in South Africa, the US, and in Korea and the people in each of these very different places obviously greatly revered him.  There was something ethereal – some indescribable aspect to him – that inspired people of all ages around the world. 

Kathy Young, Senior Project Manager

I had the honor of meeting Nelson Mandela at the foundation offices years ago in December, 1999.  He came walked down an aisle shaking hands of employees as he went.  Graca followed behind him.  He shook my hand and gave me a smile.  It’s something I will always remember (along with the twinkle in his eyes). 

 When someone asks me about my favorite memories at the foundation, meeting Nelson Mandela is the first thing I say.  It was a very special moment.  A once in a lifetime opportunity.

Joe Cerrell, Managing Director, Global Policy & Advocacy

The first time I met Nelson Mandela was in 1994, during one of his State Visits to Washington, D.C.  I was a young staffer in the Clinton Administration, and I successfully managed to be part of a team that organized a breakfast in his honor at Blair House, where President Mandela was staying, across the street from the White House.  I just wanted a chance to catch of a glimpse the man from a distance.  

The morning of the event, I was setting up an area where reporters would take pictures of Mandela, when without warning he came around the corner.  I stepped back, when suddenly he stopped and gestured to me.  I turned around to see who he was looking at, and he said to me: “Are you just going to stand there or come over and say hello?”  I apologized and hurried over, blubbering something about what an honor it was to meet him.  I remember him that day going out of his way to greet people, no matter who they were.  

Later that day, with my girlfriend, Sara, who would later become my wife, I snuck out onto the South Lawn of the White House to watch a press conference with Presidents Mandela and Clinton.  President Clinton said of Mandela that day: “After a half century of struggle, you've proved to people on every continent that justice and reconciliation can prevail. In a world where too many tear down, you and the South African people have proved that there are those who build up and create. You have shown us the way, and we look forward, sir, to walking down the road with you.”

Geoff Lamb, Chief Economic and Policy Advisor

I first saw Mandela in the flesh in 1964.  I was a very young reporter covering the Rivonia Trial for The Star, the Johannesburg daily, and also an activist on the side of the ANC and its allies.  Mandela sat there in the courtroom alongside his eight co-defendants, leaning forward with his powerful boxer's shoulders, stony to the prosecution and police but occasionally breaking that wonderful broad smile when he exchanged an aside with his colleagues or his lawyers. To young supporters of the liberation movement like me he was already an icon, and we feared for his life in that trial. Though the security police mostly kept the public and press away from the dock, during the lunchbreak of a day with special significance to the banned ANC, I managed to drop a scrap of paper on his seat in the dock with the words "Mayibuye iAfrika" -- let Africa be returned to us -- a slogan of our freedom struggle.  Madiba spotted it, and I had the satisfaction of seeing it passed quietly from him down the line of defendants when the court reconvened.

Days after he and his comrades were sentenced to life in prison, I and thousands of others were swept off to prison, and many of us subsequently to exile.  In all those long years when I was studying, working, traveling, raising children, experiencing life in full, I would think of Mandela and so many of my friends shut away in prison -- and I had a painful sense of how bleak and harsh it was from my own brief months in the jails of the apartheid system.

Mandela was released on my birthday, 11th February 1990 -- the most wonderful birthday present imaginable, and one which incidentally ended my own years of exile from my homeland.

I had the privilege of seeing and talking to him again a few years later, on his State visit to the UK -- and saw again that regal bearing, the deliberate, almost flat public speech, and in private the stern reproving look almost immediately softened by that marvelous smile.

Our family cherishes our last direct connection with Madiba: a wonderful letter he sent to my daughter Grace's high school graduating class, commending social commitment and engagement by young people, and stressing the importance of the worldwide struggle against AIDS.  The memory of the roar that went up from those kids in Washington DC when I read out the letter, paused, and then read the name of its signatory, reminds me that Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was my hero and South Africa's, but that he also belongs to the world.

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