Straightforward and brilliant like Ghandi - CNBC Africa

Straightforward and brilliant like Ghandi


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Souvenirs of Nelson Mandela in Soweto, Johannesburg, South Africa. PHOTO: Getty Images

Nobel Prize winner Mother Teresa visited industrialist Manu Chandaria at his Nairobi home four times. Down the years, Chandaria met numerous heads of state, including Ghandi – only one left him struggling for words.  

“He inspired me,” says Chandaria after a lot of effort to express.

Chandaria met Mandela for the first time on March 18, 2004, at the inauguration of the Pan-African Parliament, the legislative arm of the African Union, in Midrand, South Africa.

“It felt like Gandhi was there he was very simple, straight forward and brilliant,” he says.

Mandela was aged 85 then, five years after he had retired after one term as South Africa’s President.  On that day, Mandela shouldered the task manfully, despite his advancing years. Chandaria had been nominated as a trustee of the Parliament.

 “Mandela came down to inaugurate it and we had a private conversation with him.We also had a photo session with him, my wife and three other trustees,” says Chandaria.

 “I realized he was so sharp. The minute I said I come from Kenya, he talked about Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame. He talked about every detail of every country that he knew. I was amazed that a man secluded for all these years would know this. He kept asking questions and we were all amazed by his mental capacity.”

Mandela weak on the day. He needed support as he struggled to make the stairs leading up to the podium. When he got to the top he made a powerful speech on African unity.

 “After many years I met another Gandhi with a philosophy, attitude, belief and lots of sacrifice.”

Chairman of the Comcraft conglomerate, Chandaria has followed Mandela’s history since his detention on  Robben Island in 1964.

“I was in Tanzania in 1966-71, when there was a heavy movement to free South Africa. Tanzania was very much in it, as well as Malawi, Zambia and other Southern Africa countries. It was basically most African states but these were frontline states. That time I felt it was time. I was in school in India between 1940 and 1948 when Mahatma Gandhi staged the quit India movement that aroused the whole country.”

Chandaria visited South Africa a week before Mandela was inaugurated, in May 1994.

 “When he became president he believed in the fundamental principle of forgive and forget. He did not want to take revenge. He decided that ‘I spent my 27 years in jail and so be it. But now I’m seeing the results of that,’” says Chandaria.

“For the first time in Africa, we had a man who came to power with ideals, with support and a man who believed in forgiving to move the country forward.”

After democracy, Comcraft started investing in South Africa and today the company has a large set up there. Chandaria says Mandela’s five years in office seemed very difficult.

“People would say this is my country but implementing things wasn’t easy. To do that you have to again tune-up the whole system that had been there for many, many years to change people’s mindsets. The job was rebuilding the nation. Not to chest-thumb. But one thing he did not put across was the necessity for people to change their mind sets,” he says.

“To me, he was so simple, so straight, so soft spoken that many a time you’d wonder what happened to him for five years. Here was a president who was sober and nice.”

Chandaria, like many in Africa, praised Mandela’s decision to step down after one term.

 “It wasn’t soon for him to leave. Today Africa is full of greedy leaders because no one wants to leave. To me it was my ideal case just to say, yes I can go.”

Chandaria, however, notes Mandela’s successors let down South Africa. He notes that real GDP per capita is very poor for a country that boasts being Africa’s powerhouse. “The shanties are worse than what you see in Kenya. Soweto used to be the largest slum in the world. The amount of poverty in South Africa is shocking. People were not allowed to do anything.”

And now like Chinua Achebe observed of Nigeria, Chandaria says the trouble with South Africa is leadership. He says the new leaders are selfish and have focused more on building themselves instead of serving the people. “Unless democracy creates stability and growth, it is useless. In many countries in Africa we are finding it difficult to deliver democracy. The mindset is not there; the power base envelopes African leaders in an unusual way that poisons their minds.”

Mandela is clearly the top man in Africa when it comes to leadership ranking. If you rate from one to 10, Chandaria says, the second would come after five. “The second man will be six or seven,” he says. “His stature is so impeccable you can touch it. He has done lot of social work and on children. That kind of humility is rare.”

 “He should have been a statesman and called all African presidents and their vice-presidents and made them understand what independence means,” says Chandaria.

“Nobody would have argued with his status. That would have been his real value. It’s not our children or the coming generation that’s the problem. It is the current generation that is breaking down Africa. He did not pass on this legacy of leadership even though he was the ambassador of real African solidarity.”