“In South Africa, they’re dancing. This is how you celebrate a great man.”
So said Peter Gabriel from the podium of the Roseland Ballroom in New York City Thursday night (December 5), where he was hosting the WITNESS 2013 Focus For Change event. WITNESS is the human rights organization that Gabriel cofounded in 1992, which aims to empower activists to document human rights abuses via video. Of course, the news that Nelson Mandela had passed away hours earlier was on the minds of all attendees.
The event itself served as an ad hoc tribute to Mandela’s influence. Every speaker mentioned him, and Mandela himself appeared in a video tribute to the night’s honoree, Dr. Mo Ibrahim, a businessman who, among other things, helped to connect Africans to each other by making cellphones more easily available on the continent.
Peter Gabriel knew Mandela personally, and worked with him in a group Mandela cofounded called The Elders, which also includes former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan and President Jimmy Carter. Before the event, Gabriel discussed his fallen icon with Radio.com, from both a personal and global perspective.
“I think everyone was getting ready for Mandela’s death a while back; I recently lost my own dad. You never quite know how long these things are going to take. [His death] was a good release for his family. But it leaves an enormous hole. In many ways, he was a father figure to all those who have campaigned for the rights of others, or for justice. I hope we see some other people emerge with his qualities, but I have my doubts.”
Given that he was friends with Gabriel, Mandela must have been impressed with WITNESS. He told Radio.com, “You know, I think he was appreciative of anyone, anywhere, who was willing to give people tools to fight for themselves. One thing he said with The Elders was, ‘Make sure you can see it in the village.’ That yardstick sticks with us in The Elders, in WITNESS, and anywhere, it’s gotta make a difference to people on the ground.”
Gabriel also spoke to Radio.com of Mandela’s charisma: “Wherever he went, he would always talk to the working class people and make them feel as important, if not more important, than the big shots.”
Of course, Mandela was skilled at dealing with the “big shots.” He described an example of this to Radio.com: “We were invited to an event in England where they were unveiling a statue of Steve Biko and he had all of the political leaders in front of him, and he was cajoling them, getting them to say, in front of the public, that they would work together. Which they would never have done unless he had the audience…he knew how to work the crowd and work the politicians. He was very determined. When he was hustling, you didn’t say ‘no’ to him. When he was working for his charities and foundations, he was as powerful and passionate as he was when he was fighting for his people.”
Regarding WITNESS’s impact over the past two decades, Gabriel explained: “Well, you know the main thing that I’m pleased about, is that when we started people didn’t really use video and technology in human rights campaigning. I think we’ve been the experimental wing, if you like, of the human rights movement. And now…I mean, we dreamt of getting cameras to the world, and the phone companies have done that way better than we could. WITNESS has done a lot of extraordinary campaigns, and I think it’s influencing the way human rights are fought for.”
Later on that evening, from the podium at the WITNESS event, Gabriel spoke more about Mandela. “To come out of 27 years in a jail, when a lot of people you loved and treasured were murdered or in prison, and to decide to shake hands with your enemy, to preach forgiveness, and set up a reconciliation committee and knowing that you have no hope of building at a great future, a ‘rainbow nation’ unless you find ways of working with your enemy, that’s extraordinary leadership. You look around the world, and you think , ‘We can use a lot more of that.'”
During his speech, Gabriel remembered his own father. “My dad used to say, ‘Leave the place better than you found it.’ That’s our job. I’m a granddad now. When life ends, and we look back and think [about] what sort of world did we leave behind for our kids and our grandkids, are we gonna be happy with what we did? Did we just live in this world, or did we change it? Were we a passenger or were we a driver? We can look away, or we can witness and transform what we see.”
He was talking about WITNESS, but he echoed his own sentiment — and the world’s — about Nelson Mandela.