If truth be told, I knew very little of what lay in store for my WIP colleagues and I as we entered The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars invited guest to what read in our schedule as a ‘South Africa Washington International Program event’. Having been acquainted with the SAWIP Class of on a few occasions in both formal and social settings, we had already begun to share some of our experiences of what brought us to D.C.
It was clear right from the outset that despite being worlds apart in our cultural heritage, we shared a common agenda- we both hope to return to our respective countries enriched by living and working in the heartbeat of national and global leadership to lead sustainable democracies with a peaceful and prosperous future. However as we were treated to an open discussion on the legacy on Nelson Mandela and South Africa’s future, I was perhaps more inspired by hearing about the journey of these young leaders from this proud Rainbow nation that any of the other fascinating people or places I had been privy to in D.C.
We were greeted with an authentic South African food and drinks reception. Having come from a long day’s work in our internships we were re-invigorated by the almost festive ambience our counterparts created. Thereafter the formal proceedings began. Unfortunately I never had the opportunity to study South African history at school or college so my knowledge of the apartheid era didn’t extend much further beyond the 2009 film ‘Invictus’. It came as a huge coincidence to find then that one of the esteemed panelists was John Carlin, author of the book ‘Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation’ which became the basis for the film. The equally impressive Bill Keller (former Executive Editor and Johannesburg Bureau Chief of The New York Times) and Richard Downes (Washington Correspondent, RTE News) joined SAWIP Class members on the stage.
I was gripped and compelled by a tradition very foreign from my own as the panelists recalled in a very organic way various anecdotes about the man affectionately known as ‘Madiba’ and what he meant to them as a national treasure. It was unanimously declared that Mandela’s charisma, diligence and most eloquently of all, his “irresistible cocktail of political seduction” (courtesy of John Carlin) made him the most important national liberator in the 20th Century. The impact of the successful 1995 Springboks Rugby World Cup side was not lost on me however the true extent of its legacy was made abundantly clear by generations past and present. I felt that the colossal emotion of the event was perhaps most vividly encapsulated by clips of the documentary John Carlin himself made with the national treasure Springboks players. Subsequent successes in the 2007 Rugby World Cup and hosting the 2010 FIFA World Cup and the tangible national joy it brought made me think would similar success in sport liberate the island of Ireland to greater peace and integration? Undoubtedly.
As I embark on my explorations of DC every day, in this global capital of world governance, I witness first hand the legacies of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, great leaders of their time who inspired a nation of emigrants to become the most developed country in the modern world. Yet the charm of this SAWIP event and the pride that the South African people have in their nation, as a result of the work of their saviour, will resonate with me just as much for many a year to come.