Profiles in leadership
CEO of the Nelson Mandela Foundation Sello Hatang on extending Madiba’s legacy
Sello Hatang’s name has become synonymous with the Nelson Mandela Foundation. When he was made CEO in 2013, at the age of 37, his appointment came as no surprise. He is bright, educated and a visionary, all the qualities needed to extend the legacy and vision of one of the most famous and respected statesmen in the world. It’s a job that Hatang holds dear and considers himself lucky to have.
He succeeded former CEO Achmat Dangor, who joined the organisation in 2007.
When former President Nelson Mandela died in December 2013, it spelt the beginning of a bigger task for the new CEO. He had to ensure that the centre outlived its patron and position its role beyond Madiba.
The job of running the foundation was probably easier during Dangor’s tenure because he had Mandela by his side, although Dangor had to deal with the pressure of people wanting to reach out to Mandela.
Rising to the challenge
“When Madiba passed, I had to rise to a new challenge. I had to imagine an organisation that outlives its founder. It’s a difficult task; you have to imagine an institution that can outgrow itself and remain relevant to current realities while keeping the legacy of its founder alive,” said Hatang.
July is usually the busiest period for Hatang and his team.This is because July is celebrated as Nelson Mandela Month in South Africa and globally 18 July is known as Nelson Mandela Day.
When PSM went to interview Hatang, he was hurrying from one meeting to the next. He also had an international flight later that day. In his usual calm way, he popped in to sincerely apologise for keeping us waiting, saying that he would be with us in 15 minutes.The 15-minute wait turned into 30 minutes but we hardly felt it because there was so much to learn and see at the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory.
The facility houses almost every historical record associated with Mandela, from the letters he wrote as a prisoner on Robben Island to the handwritten notes he drafted during his speeches and other engagements while President of South Africa from 1994 to 1999. Even Madiba’s office, which he used after his presidential years, has been left untouched. His chair, table and office décor are the same as he left them during his last day at work, according to staff at the centre.
So what is a typical day at the foundation?
“Sometimes it can be a very calm day. Sometimes it gets very hectic. On a typical day, it can range from meeting with someone who needs our help or wants us to intervene in some difficult issue to meeting with a donor. I try to visit a project once a month, which means driving to some far-flung place to see how we can assist,” said Hatang.
Helping the vulnerable
Since joining the foundation five years ago, Hatang has taken part in a number of projects and says helping vulnerable people deal with their difficult issues as well as doing charity work to raise funds for the poor are what connects him to his work.
He is adamant that people should have a good understanding of what it is they wish to achieve.“When your motivation is clear, it will carry you when your legs no longer can,” he says.
Hatang was born in a relatively unknown township named Khuma in the North West. He was the first in his family to qualify and study at a university and is the fifth of six children. Raised by a single mother who was a domestic worker, succeeding in life was a must for the young Hatang.
Previously he was the head of information communications and spokesperson for the South African Human Rights Commission. He participated in the post-1994 transformation of the National Archives, including providing
archival support for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and is a former Director of the South African History Archive at Wits University. Hatang also serves on the boards of the Open Democracy Advice Centre and Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution.
He was a member of the editorial team for Nelson Mandela’s book Conversations with Myself and co-editor of Nelson Mandela by Himself: The Authorised Book of Quotations.
But it was his time as spokesperson for the Nelson Mandela Foundation that introduced him to the wider public.
So did he feel he was ready to step into the shoes of Dangor, who had led the foundation since 2007?
“I had the absolute privilege of working under Dangor. From day one of me arriving, he already had his succession in mind. He introduced me to people that I needed to know. He ensured that he pulled me into critical meetings that discussed things that I needed to know. At the time, I didn’t realise what he was doing. In a way, you could say he saw something in me that I didn’t see.
“So when you ask me if I was ready for the challenge, I can give you an emphatic ‘yes’.The only thing is I didn’t know what the challenge was.”
Hatang is known for keeping his private life private, but during this interview, he spoke fondly of his wife and three children.
“They are my life. They are the reason I wake every day to do the work I do. I have a very lovely family.”
He also spoke affectionately about his mother. He remembers the day he called her from a pay phone as a student to ask for more money for books. Although she earned very little as a domestic worker and had other children to care for, she promised to do what she could. Despite immense financial challenges and the heartbreak of losing two of her four children, Hatang said she has always been “my pillar”.
Hatang finds inspiration in mountain climbing. He has climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa, several times and is going back for more.
“Every time I climb a mountain, I feel a sense of accomplishment. Every time I do it, I remind myself why I am doing it. If I don’t climb a mountain, I walk and that helps me to relax.”
Building the country of our dreams
As the world celebrates Madiba’s life, the 42-year-old has one wish: “I would like to see a Nelson Mandela in each and every one of us. Madiba did a lot of things in a short period of time. He was robbed of almost 30 years of his life; yet when he came out of prison, he began building the country of his dreams.
“The question all of us should ask ourselves as individuals is: What am I doing to build the country of my dreams?”
Hatang said the organisation’s messages during Mandela Month will focus on building a values-based society.
“One of the struggles that we currently have is that we are moving away from values. We will be trying to inculcate a culture of values in our society because above all Madiba was a principled man who dreamt of a principled country,” he added.
The Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory.