By Winter Johnson
‘There can be no greater gift than that of giving one’s time and energy to help others without expecting anything in return.’
Nelson Mandela. The name itself inspires courage, compassion, inspiration, and service, and no one knows this better than Mark Ottenweller, MD, former Country Director of HOPE worldwide South Africa. Dr. Ottenweller had the privilege of working with Mandela in the 1990s on various programmes in Soweto, South Africa, including early childhood development, combating the HIV/AIDS epidemic and more.
In honour of Mandela Day on 18 July, we sat down with Dr. Ottenweller to discuss his work with Mandela, the HOPE Unity Award that Mandela received in 1995, and the man himself.
HWW: What programmes connected you and Mandela together?
Dr. Ottenweller: Well, he was in prison for 27 years, and one of the things he missed the most when he was in prison was children. He had a real heart to connect with children. Historically, the average white South African’s education was five times more expensive than the average black South African’s, so there was a huge disparity in education. He had a huge desire to help people, to help with education.
He believed that education was a real key to the success of children. We had a mutual interest in the development of children, and so we worked with the Mandela Children’s Fund and several other groups who assisted children, like Save the Children, UNICEF and more.
HWW: Tell us about the HOPE Unity Award.
Dr. Ottenweller: I met with Mandela’s office and explained to them the award and its emphasis on unity, which South Africa really struggled with, and Nelson Mandela represented the effort to bring people together, to cooperate, to give mutual respect, to honour people and recognise their worth.
He was very impressed by the work of HOPE worldwide, and he was happy to receive the award. It was a great time meeting with him and engaging with him because of our mutual respect for people and the poor, and especially for children.
HWW: Why was he the best candidate for the HOPE Unity Award?
Dr. Ottenweller: He was an incredible icon and beacon of unity, respect, dignity and treating people well, no matter what their background was. He didn’t speak with revenge or animosity or partisanship. One example is the Invictus story when the South Africans won the World Cup. It was an electric moment in South Africa, but the country was very divided at the time; there was a lot of violence and people faced many challenges.
But he made a huge effort to bring people together, to listen to people and to try to work together. He represented unity. The HOPE Unity Award was depicted as a fist with a group of branches, saying that we’re stronger together. He represented bringing the country of South Africa together.
HWW: What does Mandela mean to you personally?
Dr. Ottenweller: Well, I was with his wife Graça Machel and I said, ‘My dad is a big Mandela fan. If I got you a birthday card, could Madiba write a little note for my dad?’ And the next day, I got a note saying happy birthday to my dad. That just tells you how down to earth he was. He was the real deal, and very inspiring.
You’ll find people in high places that have genuine concern, and it shocks you a little bit at first, but then it’s great to work together to help people in difficult situations.
HWW: Can you give us a quote that you remember from your conversations with him?
Dr. Ottenweller: When I was leaving South Africa, myself and another staff member met with him at his office for tea. And I asked him, ‘Madiba, what do you think South Africa needs in the future?’
He responded, ‘We need great leaders, leaders who have a genuine interest and a genuine concern for the people.’ That really inspired me.
HWW: HOPE worldwide has a mission to partner with our neighbours in need and to strengthen communities, to inspire greater hope in our world.
How did Nelson Mandela accomplish this?
Dr. Ottenweller: He believed in partnership, working together, and finding people that have genuine concern. Once you meet those people, it’s magical and electric because you can sit down and work together to find great solutions.
Click below to hear more from Dr. Ottenweller on his work with Nelson Mandela.