Some people are natural-born storytellers. One such storyteller is Sandy Griffiths, a South African by birth with a truly international career. We had the pleasure of interviewing her for this book (you can read this interview in the Insightful Interviews section of the book). She told us a number of stories, and this one really touched a chord. Rather than us retell it, we thought we would use the interview and let her tell it in her own words.
It is the story of how, when working for Simba Frito-Lay, she was lucky enough to meet and spend some time with one of her absolute role models – the man that all South Africans know, simply, as Madiba: Nelson Mandela.
“I was very blessed and privileged to spend a fair amount of time with the man but I don’t know if I have ever told you this story. It was my first encounter with Mr Nelson Mandela. I had this friend – he did a mimic of Madiba – you would swear it was Nelson Mandela talking to you. A lot of South Africans can do that accent. He would mimic it to perfection.
“I was with Simba Crisps at the time. We had one of these night bells that would go off at night. It was quite late, and the bells went off. It was this friend – he had been bugging me all that week with his Mandela mimic. So when I heard this voice and it said, ‘Hello, this is Nelson Mandela, I need to talk to your CEO,’ I went, ‘yeah, yeah, yeah’ and put the phone down.
“Then the phone rang again, and it was the same guy – OK – at which point I said, ‘Listen, I’m very stressed, just stop messing around with me. I will talk with you tomorrow. Don’t call me back.’ I put the phone down again – not realizing that I had put the phone down twice on Mr Nelson Mandela himself.
“His PA then called me, laughing. She said, ‘Listen, Madiba actually called you twice. This is the real man,’ and I thought thank God she was laughing. “I said, ‘Are you kidding me?’ “‘No,’ she said, ‘Madiba wants to speak to your CEO.’
I thought ‘Oh my God!’ I nearly passed out with fright. I thought I was going to get fired. “So, I called the MD and said, ‘I think I might have messed up big time.’ He said, ‘Oh no, what have you done now?’ I said, ‘I think I put the phone down on Madiba twice. He says he wants to talk to the CEO.’
He said, ‘WHAT?’ “Now I’m close to tears. So, all he says to me is, ‘I don’t know how you’re going to do this, but go fix it.’ “So, I called the PA and told her the back-story and she said he [Madiba] actually thought it was funny because no one has ever put the phone down on him. But she said, ‘You’re going to pay for this.’
“Payment was that I got ‘invited’ the following morning to have breakfast with him. It was with a few other people in the industry. I soon learned just how clever Madiba was, first-hand, because what he had been calling the CEO for was to get our character – we had a character called Simba the lion that went to schools, where it was a big thing. He wanted the lion to show up with him at schools, because he was going there as part of the work that the Nelson Mandela Trust Foundation does. He wanted Simba the lion with him and free stock to give to the kids as part of a Christmas package.
“I had gone to breakfast with him that morning where I was a blubbering idiot; I had just sobbed to start with, but it was how I got to spend three weeks for two years with him, taking Simba the lion around and giving him free stock.
“And what I learned from that time with him – understanding the gentleness of the soul, the forgiving nature of that man – is that, after everything, there was no bitterness in him. “He said to me, ‘I can’t poison the rest of my days by being bitter and twisted because my days are limited. I’m going to live my best life. I have no regrets because I did what was right at the time. I will continue doing what I think is right. If I regret what has happened to me all my life, I’m living history, I’m not living in the present.’ “For me, he’s beyond iconic – he’s just a man you felt greatness in the presence of, like I’d never felt before. So, if you took a role model who almost doesn’t seem real in most people’s eyes, it would be Madiba.”