My life brushed with Nelson Mandela in 2001. It involved hundreds of Aussies joining a global response to a crisis involving the supply of HIV/AIDS medicines in South Africa. It was also reported as one of the great corporate PR disasters of all time.
Back then and Down Under, I started a new job at a place I’ll call Big Company. They prolong and improve lives, employing around 100,000 people in 115 countries.
Big Company had been waiting for me to start, they said, and I knew my to-do list would be long. On day one, I was shown to my office which had a desk covered with files including three folders stuffed with what looked like sheets of paper.
My affable boss said: “It’s probably best to start with that pile first. I haven’t gone through it, but I think it’s angry letters. The temp has already opened them so that should save you some time.” Uh oh.
Day one passed and there was no chance to open those bulging folders so I took one home, eager to get on top of things.
After 20 letters, I needed a break.
They were letters filled with anger, bitterness or outrage at Big Company for the way ordinary Aussies perceived it had treated sick South Africans and Nelson Mandela.
In simple terms, the letters were in response to a stoush between pharmaceutical companies and the South African government.
The back story
This stoush had begun brewing three years earlier when 39 pharma companies – including Big Company – had filed a lawsuit to stop the South African government from importing and manufacturing cheaper generic HIV medicines, known as antiretrovirals.
The lawsuit was to maintain the patent rights of pharma companies under international trade law. But the rest of the world, it seemed, didn’t care.
Perceptions count and the world perceived pharma companies blocking poor South Africans from life saving medicines by charging the government inflated drug prices.
Complicating this already complex issue was the lack of infrastructure or medical plan in South Africa to deal with HIV or AIDS, mostly because its government refused to acknowledge the disease and the causes of its transmission. As a result, HIV/AIDS was widespread and on the rise.
More than 10,000 kilometres away as I sat on my lounge room floor surrounded by letters of scorn and abuse, I despaired for all involved in this complex issue, and the task that lay ahead of me: to respond to angry Aussies on behalf of Big Company.
The most polite of the small sample of letters said Big Company had lost its moral compass, was shameful and contemptuous. Reporting the least polite would probably lose my PG rating for this blog. You can probably guess.
But many of the letters referred to Mandela. He was a man my parents had told me incredible stories about long after we’d left South Africa, our place of birth.
In their assault on Big Company, the letters invoked Mandela’s story and legendary status, as I’d learned over the years. This was despite Mandela no longer being President, not involved in the lawsuit, nor in HIV/AIDS management.
It became apparent that AIDS activists and humanitarian groups had successfully used the lawsuit to spotlight the lack of medical care for poor South Africans with HIV/AIDS.
Over the next week I took the rest of the letters home to ensure that my original sample wasn’t just a bunch of outliers. The letters came in all shapes and sizes and were typed or handwritten. Most were signed by one person and some by a few.
The remaining letters confirmed that no one liked Big Company. Yet everyone loved Mandela, the anti-apartheid activist jailed for nearly three decades.
We love you Mandela
What stuck me most in those letters was the outpouring of love for Mandela. Lots of people perceived that Big Company had attacked him and they weren’t going to stand for it, even though there was no factual basis for their concerns.
The words of one woman remain etched in my mind 13 years later: “…He is a statesman and you are suing him. SHAME ON YOU!”
Eventually, my light bulb moment came.
Those letters, more than anything else, were love letters to Nelson Mandela and his legacy. He was the people’s hero in all parts of the world, even Down Under.
What’s more, he was – and is – my hero: a symbol of hope, good and forgiveness.
- The next post includes my response on behalf of Big Company and continues the tribute to Mandela.