Madeleine Albright not only made history as the first female Secretary of State, but she witnessed history by visiting South Africa and President Nelson Mandela in 1997.
As part of the celebration of Nelson Mandela’s 100th birthday and the 25th anniversary of South Africa’s first democratic elections, Secretary Albright visited the U.S. Chamber to talk about her time as a diplomat and the important role business plays in supporting democracy.
Here are a few insights and key takeaways from her discussion:
1. Mandela’s legacy was one of unity.
On Mandela’s legacy, Secretary Albright noted his character: “He really was a shining light.”
“Nelson Mandela’s light was the brightest in terms of what it did not only for South Africa, but the way it made us all understand the importance of not dividing people according to what color they were.”
“He forgave his jailers,” she said. “I think that’s one of the stunning aspects of him.”
He also conquered divisions in South Africa. “What you need are leaders like Nelson Mandela who can bring people together, rather than exacerbating the divisions,” Albright said.
In talking about the U.S. supporting South Africa during its historic change, she noted, “We were supporting democracy. We were trying to figure out how in fact to make democracy not only be resilient but to understand that it was attacked in a number ways.”
2. Economic development is key to bolstering democracy.
“Economic development had to go with political development,” Albright remarked. “They go together, because people want to vote and eat.”
Business plays an important role in democracy-supporting economic development, she said.
“Business are very good ambassadors in terms of good labor regulations, health policy, generally in terms of having a diversified workforce. Businesses can be good ambassadors on behalf of human rights,” Albright said.
3. The public and private sector can and must work together.
“It was clear that you couldn’t expect governments to do everything, and that the private sector had a very important role in pursuing and dealing with the economic issues out there,” said Albright.
She offered advice for companies already working in Africa or are considering it.
First, understand the continent is not one, singular place. It’s dozens of countries with unique populations and needs. “One has to understand what’s happening individually” in African countries, she advised. “We do need to understand is that it is a huge population with a very robust young population that is ready to be a part of a new Africa.”
Second, businesses need to be “good local citizens.” “I think partially because there had been a sense especially I think in Africa that foreign businesses were part of a colonial system and therefore it was very important to separate from that and say, ‘We’re with you,’” she said.