“Appearances constitute reality.” -Nelson Mandela.
As Richard Stengel wrote: At every stage of his life he decided who he wanted to be and created the appearance – and then the reality – of that person. He became who he wanted to be.
Today marks the 95th birthday of a frail but still powerful man: Nelson Mandela, Madiba to us South Africans. Happy birthday, Madiba. This is a post that is long overdue. I wanted to do this for a very long time, but alas, today is the perfect day.
This is not about Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, the anti-apartheid revolutionary and politician, ex-president of South Africa or any of those descriptions. I simply want to write about Nelson Mandela’s image, style and charisma.
Richard Stengel, Times magazine editor and journalist, and collaborator with Mandela on his autobiography, also wrote an inspiring book titled: Mandela’s way, Lessons on Life, about the wisdom he learned from the old man. Chapter five has the title: Look the part, as a topic of one of the lessons, but the complete book is an exquisite example of Mandela ‘s light
- He understood that others can read your character through your appearance – he argued that it does not make sense not to judge by appearance
- His opinion was that you have to wear the right costume to play the part if you want to pass the audition. Through his life he acted and supported his different roles through his love for clothes: as the ward of the king of Thembuland, where as a young man he had to press the king’s suits, as a student, as a young lawyer, as the President of South Africa.
- There are even photos taken of him in prison where one can almost just add a tie to conjure up a corporate makeover.
As Richard Stengel wrote in Mandela’s way: one of his first battles in Robben Island prison was over clothing. The regulations said that black prisoners had to wear shorts, where as prisoners designated as Indian and the mixed race, Coloureds, could wear long pants. He found it insulting to wear short pants and fought this fiercely.
- As a lawyer, Mandela was always known for his sharp suits and as an extravagant and stylish dresser. One of the first thing he did was to find a tailor – a relative unheard of luxury in those days.
Mandela knew that to dress appropriately and to fit in with the surrounding group is for sure a winning recipe, as illustrated in the following two cases.
- For Mandela’s meeting with former South African president, P.W.Botha, to start discussing his release, he organized from his famous prison cell for a three-piece suit to be made for him. His thought was that wearing a prison suit will be to his disadvantage, and that it was crucial for his negotiations to be on equal footing with Mr. Botha.
- In 1995, when the South African national Springbok team won the Rugby World Cup against New Zealand, the former star winger, Chester Williams remarked: “When Nelson Mandela walked into the changing room wearing that Springbok rugby jersey, it was done. We had to win that game.
“Everybody expected him to wear a suit and tie. It changed the attitude and spirit of the team — and it changed the whole mind-set of the nation.“
- Richard Stengel wrote: Mandela was concerned about appearances on a far grander scale than just what suit he was wearing. He understood the power of the image.
- It was indeed not only Nelson Mandela’s sense and love for style and clothes that made him the charmer he was. He also understood the value of a beautiful upright posture as well as a broad, sincere smile which spreaded easily and often over his face. Both these habits showed his inner confidence to the world.
- He always acted as a host.
- He knew how to plan and visualise. He planned and executed his powerful actions in fine detail to work magic. Timing is of great importance, for eg. the precise moment to enter a hall to make the biggest impact. He figured out beforehand whom to shake hands with and when.
- Mandela understood that by taking the lead, he conferred authority: to be the first to extend your hand to shake hands, to be the first to applause and congratulate, to greet other people, instead of to be greeted by others.
- As President, he only wore suits when the occasion required. Instead he developed his own style to fit in with and relate to his people. He became famous for his colourful, flamboyant silk shirts. The Madiba silk shirt can be brightly coloured or more subdued, but definitely with a print. He always wears it buttoned to the collar, and never tucked in. Perfectly casual-classic and ultimately chic. It is named after Mandela’s clan name “Madiba”, an honorary title adopted by all members of his clan. The Madiba shirt was designed by Desré Buirski and first worn by the then newly-elected president at the dress rehearsal of the opening of South Africa’s first democratic Parliament in May 1994. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Madiba_shirt
- The Nelson Mandela Foundation has launched a sportswear line, 46664, named after his prison ID number.
“Mandela is aware that images have the tremendous power to shape how we are perceived. He is a genius at what sociologists call ‘impression management. ” – Richard Stengel.