Ndaba Mandela, grandson of Nelson Mandela, called for youth empowerment and the celebration of African identity in a roundtable of “friends, brothers, sisters, cousins,” just shy of 20 students Friday afternoon. Sponsored by the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly, the event was open to the University and was hosted by the Johnson Africa Business Society.
Ndaba is the founder and chairman of the Africa Rising Foundation, an organization that aims to empower African youth worldwide. Its founding was sparked by a book describing Africa during the slave trade as an “absolute abomination,” Ndaba said.
“That is not the perspective that I want my fellow brothers and sisters to continue perpetuating across the world,” he continued.
Instead, Ndaba said that Africa Rising empowers young people to fight “Afro-pessimism” shaped by mainstream media, and to carry the name of Africa through education, entrepreneurship and pride in being African.
Native to a South African village with very high unemployment, Ndaba recognizes entrepreneurship — specifically passion, failure, and collaboration — as the road to empowering ourselves and each other.
“There’s no room for failure in Africa,” said Ndaba on the lack of support for entrepreneurial spirit on his continent. “But as an entrepreneur, failure has to become your friend. You just have to keep knocking your head against that brick wall until it starts cracking.”
Ndaba’s grandfather Nelson Mandela only held one expectation for his grandson: to be a leader, though not necessarily in politics, and to simply pick a passion and run with it.
“‘Ndaba, you are my grandson. Therefore, people will look at you as a leader,’” he recalled Nelson Mandela saying.
He was accompanied by L. Mychael Jefferson, chairman of investment banking firm Hamershlag Sulzberger Borg, who got to know Mandela through his frequent travels to South Africa. Jefferson shared his concept of “failing forward” to define success as resisting failure and circumventing opposition.
“The definition of impossible is something that hasn’t been done yet,” said Jefferson. “If you give me no other choice, I’m going to go through you. One way or another, you have to get to the other side.”
Mandela also highlighted the unrealized potential of connectedness of the African community in America, augmented today by social media. Jefferson added that the power of LinkedIn and Facebook connects us to almost anyone in the world, eliminating any reason not to go over barriers.
According to Ndaba, the “tacit” power of connections helps entrepreneurs in Africa sustain their businesses against corruption. For example, without computers among the older generations in power, his physical presence is valuable when obtaining forms from administrators.
The lack of youth in powerful positions creates long-term leadership failures in Africa, according to Mandela. Overly competitive against each other, young generations fall to their own demise while old leaders remain stagnant.
“You don’t see new faces. The youth are not rising up. They are not supporting each other,” said Mandela. “The most effective leader is the one who leads from the back, but we are not like that as youth.”
Instead, he champions an ‘out with the old, in with the new’ call to action, stating that the time of the “old dogs” is over.
In a room of young minds, Jefferson said that time and naivete are our most valuable assets. Fresh perspectives from inexperience yield the greatest power, allowing the youth to shape tomorrow.
“Be unstoppable — like water,” he said. “Water is something that will go in any direction. There’s no barrier you can put up that will ultimately stop it. The answer lies within you.”
Despite his drive, Mandela still believes in a time and place for fun.
“I want to thrive. At the same time, I’m a human being,” he said. “I also need to take a break, I also want to take a shot of tequila once in a while, I also want to go to the club once in a while. Why can’t I?”
Jefferson ended with a Robert Kennedy reference, “Most people see the world as it is and ask why. I view the world as what it could be and ask why not.”
Mandela also addressed a larger audience at Call Auditorium later on Friday.