The official order of business yesterday was the introduction of The Elders: convened at the request of Nelson Mandela, a collection of former leaders that has begun to work together to advance the causes of peace and global justice.
Five Nobel Laureates and a handful of other eminences gathered on the stage in Johannesburg as Mr. Mandela announced that they would seek to fulfill the traditional role of elders in a village, providing wisdom and leadership and attempting to resolve conflicts, taking on everything from climate change to the fighting in Darfur.
A symbolic empty chair was left on stage for Aung San Suu Kyi, the activist who will join the group when she is free of government-imposed house arrest in Myanmar (formerly known as Burma). But as the Elders sat in a row and spoke about their very serious work, a current—of irreverence, of resilience, of what looked very much like joy—kept bubbling up through the formality. And Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who chairs this elders’ council, voiced the true theme of the gathering: “Goodness will prevail.”
Yesterday was Mr. Mandela’s 89th birthday. And so what was slated to be a routine press conference was almost immediately hijacked when the sprightly and elfin archbishop commanded that everyone join in singing Happy Birthday as Mr. Mandela was helped slowly to his seat by a bodyguard and his elegant wife, Graça Machel.
And in that moment came the transformation that seems to happen whenever Mr. Mandela is in a room: Everyone, from the flinty CNN crew to the guy who ran the metal detector in the doorway, got a bit gooey. People broke out in huge smiles, lifted their hands to their faces, turned and nudged one another. “Madiba Magic,” South Africans call it, using the tribal name by which Mr. Mandela is universally known here. No one, it seems, is impervious.
Beaming at Mr. Mandela, the archbishop then told the crowd, “Finally he listened to me about something—I told him they should get married.” Mr. Mandela laughed, and clutched Ms. Machel’s hand: Yesterday was also their ninth wedding anniversary.
At that point, Archbishop Tutu turned a gently reproving glance to Kofi Annan, and the former United Nations Secretary-General leapt up and into action, bustling across the stage to present a huge bouquet of flowers to Ms. Machel in honour of the occasion.
The Elders, it emerged, is the brainchild of the English tycoon Sir Richard Branson—who was himself in the audience with his elderly parents. Back in 2001, he and his friend, the British musician and anti-apartheid campaigner Peter Gabriel, sought out Mr. Mandela and asked if he would try to convene a group of world leaders to take on conflicts such as that in Israel and the Palestinian territories—to use their moral influence where others with political agendas had failed.
“The structures we have to deal with these problems are often tied by political, economic and geographical constraints,” Mr. Mandela said yesterday. “As institutions of government grapple with the challenges they face, the efforts of a small, dedicated group of leaders working objectively and without any vested personal interest in the outcome can help to resolve what often seem like intractable problems.”
The Elders have no formal role—nor, Mr. Mandela stressed, will they seek to replace or compete with any official or elected body. None of the group was willing to commit specifically to which issues they will take on, although former Irish president Mary Robinson said they are already at work. Darfur was mentioned repeatedly and a source who sat in on one of their meetings told The Globe that they have also made overtures to Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, seeking to negotiate a way to have him leave office.
But former U.S. president Jimmy Carter said it would be fine with him if no one outside their council ever knew what issues they worked on. “The Elders neither want, nor will we ever have, any kind of authority except that that comes from common moral values,” he said. “We will be able to risk failure and we will not need to claim successes.”
The group’s work is being funded with an initial infusion of $18-million (U.S.) by wealthy friends of Sir Richard.
Introducing him and Mr. Gabriel, the archbishop remarked that he should ask Mr. Gabriel to sing Biko—his iconic hymn about the murder of anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko 30 years ago. Sir Richard’s head snapped up at that, and he shouldered his way back to the microphone, saying, “If you won’t ask him, I will!” Moments later an abashed-looking Mr. Gabriel found himself in front of the crowd, clearing his throat.
It was a fitting place to sing this song: the gathering was held on the grounds of South Africa’s Constitutional Court, which was once an apartheid prison. As the archbishop said, “This was a place of tears, of suffering, of humiliation. People were detained without trial here, people were tortured here. But they didn’t buckle.”
So Mr. Gabriel squared his shoulders and sang Biko, every haunting word, and the audience—journalists and dignitaries and a row of South Africa’s Constitutional Court justices—joined him with a low and rhythmic hum.
Tumultuous applause erupted as he finished, but then just as quickly died away, as people noticed the archbishop: He was hunched over, hands clutched in fists, weeping inconsolably.
“We stand on the shoulders of incredible people,” he choked out, taking off his glasses and wiping the tears. “We owe our freedom to incredible people.”
Mr. Mandela said, with what sounded like a note of genuine regret, that “I am trying to take my retirement seriously” and so would not participate in the hands-on work of his group of Elders. But he will, as Mr. Branson said, pick up the phone when he needs to, using his unique level of moral suasion to get others involved.
In the end, Mr. Mandela left the gathering to celebrate his birthday with his children and grandchildren, and the other Elders went to work. Archbishop Tutu, dancing a little jig, sent everyone into the world with a final observation: “We have been through incredible times and God has helped us to see that the evil doesn’t have the last word. It’s ultimately goodness and laughter and joy,” he said. “Those are what are going to prevail in the end.”
Sir Richard Branson
British adventurer, promoter, humanitarian and head of the Virgin brand of more than 350 companies: “You are a thousand years of collected wisdom.”
British musician and humanitarian: “Many people around the world are losing faith—our dream was that there might still be a group of people we could trust. . .. Whose strength was based [only] on the faith they themselves had earned through their remarkable lives.”
Ghanaian former secretary-general of the United Nations and Nobel peace prize winner: “Never underestimate the power of a third party. Sometimes by just saying, ‘This is enough, we can’t take this any more, it must stop’—that is enough.”
Former U.S. president and Nobel Peace Prize winner: “We’re convinced that the common goals of society—of peace, freedom, human rights, environmental quality, alleviation of suffering and the rule of law and many pressing problems and causes of suffering—are not being addressed adequately because of political pressures or because of the fear of failure.”
Nobel Peace Prize winner and former South African president: “The elders can speak freely and boldly, working both publicly and behind the scenes, on whatever actions need to be taken. . . I am also certain that they will support courage where there is fear, foster agreement where there is conflict and inspire hope where there is despair.”
Former Mozambican cabinet minister, widow of the late Mozambican president Samora Machel and current wife of Mr. Mandela: “What I hope to bring to this effort is my experience meeting with so many extraordinary people and organizations working at community level—people who have brilliant ideas and are making a huge effort to solve problems. But all too often their contributions remain localized and their voices go unheard.”
former Irish president and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights: “We are approaching the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights but it’s extremely unlikely that such a vision would be written today.”
Nobel Peace Prize winner and primate of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa: “This group is one that has an understanding of the essential interdependence of all of human beings. [South Africans] speak of ubuntu—that we are human only through other human beings . . . we will work together, humbly bound by our humanity, to confront injustice wherever it exists, to ease suffering regardless of its root, to work together to make this wonderful world a healthier, more equitable and peaceful place to live.”
Muhammad Yunus Bangladeshi economist and Nobel Peace Prize winner, best known as the leading voice on microfinance: “What we are capable of is much bigger than what we think. It’s our world, we can build it the way we want it and make it happen.”
Humanitarian and former Indian MP who has worked to help India’s poorest and most oppressed female workers
Gro Harlem Brundtland
Norway’s former prime minister
Former foreign minister of China