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Can one person really change the world?


Writing Quest was a deeply personal quest, one that, although I did not realise it at the time, was shaped and inspired by the events of a fateful Easter weekend during 1993, in South Africa, the country of my birth. Here is the story of what happened.


The day that changed everything began like most Saturday mornings. In many ways it was the perfect African morning, a refreshing coolness in the air holding back the heat of the day as the sun rose higher. It had seemed sure to be another beautiful day in Africa when the leader of the South African Communist Party, Chris Hani, headed out to buy the morning paper at a nearby shopping mall. His wife Limpho, and daughters Neo and Lindiwe were away visiting relatives over the Easter weekend and he’d briefly left at home his 15-year-old daughter Nomakhwezi. At the time South Africa was in the middle of its precarious political transition. Hani had been working long hours over the previous weeks negotiating the country’s new constitution and he’d been looking forward to a quiet weekend spending time with Nomakhwezi. That day he was going to be all hers; he’d promised.


Polish immigrant and karate devotee Janusz Waluz found his dojo empty, he realised with annoyance that it was closed for Easter Saturday. So Waluz used his spare time to head off to the local Gun Exchange and emerged with 25 rounds of 9mm subsonic ammunition. He now had one more task before returning home, to stake out the house of Chris Hani – number three on a hit list that had been drawn up by a group of white supremacists and given to Waluz, their hitman.


Driving his red Ford Laser he came up to the gentle bend in the road where Hani lived and as he slowly approached he noticed Hani pulling out of the driveway and driving away. Waluz floored the pedal to catch up; he prided himself on being a rally driver and used his skills to quickly manoeuvre behind Hani’s car. Hani entered a shopping mall and parked, unaware he had been followed. Waluz double-checked and noticed Hani’s bodyguards were not present. This left him with a dilemma; he’d not planned to carry out the killing today nor did he want to shoot Hani in a highly visible and populated shopping mall. He made a snap decision and raced back to Hani’s house, coaxing himself to seize the opportunity in front of him. An opportunity like this would not come around again; he stopped his car outside the house, pulled on his gloves and waited.


As soon as Hani returned home, Waluz approached him. “I didn't want to shoot him in the back,” Janusz Waluz recounted later of his evil deed. “So I called, ‘Mr Hani’. When he turned, I drew my pistol and shot him." Waluz stared down at the lifeless body calmly turned and walked away.

Across the road, Retha Harmse, Hani’s neighbour witnessed the shooting. Before she could do anything, it was all over. With an arrogant stride, Waluz climbed back into his car and drove off. As quickly as possible, Retha ran into her house and picked up the phone to call the police; she had memorised the car’s number plates. Police on patrol were quickly radioed and within minutes they had Waluz’s car boxed in. His blood-splattered clothes and smoking gun were evidence of what he’d done.


For Mandela, South Africa’s great leader, this assassination was a huge blow. He recalls in his book A Long Walk To Freedom, that at the time of Hani’s death, “the country was fragile”. That night Nelson Mandela went on TV to address the nation calling for calm and restraint. He pointed out that it was the quick action of an Afrikaner woman, the very ethnic group that Waluz believed he epitomised, which had led to the killer being apprehended. Mandela’s speech touched the hearts of mourners and fearful South Africans alike as he said:


Today, an unforgivable crime has been committed… a crime against a dearly beloved son of our soil… We are a nation deeply wounded… we must not permit ourselves to be provoked by those who seek to deny us the very freedom Chris Hani gave his life for. Let us respond with dignity and in a disciplined fashion… The ANC dips its banner in salute to this outstanding son of Africa.


Almost three decades earlier in 1964, Mandela had given a speech now known as I Am Prepared To Die. This three-hour long oration was given from the dock of the defendant at the Rivonia Trial, arguably the most significant political trial in South Africa’s history. During the speech made to a watchful world Mandela eloquently and masterfully announced his own personal quest: “During my lifetime I have dedicated my life to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realised. But, My Lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die”. At the end of the trial Mandela was convicted of sabotage against the State and sentenced to life imprisonment. He would serve 27 years of the sentence before being freed in February 1990.


It was not Mandela’s desire to become a martyr, dying for his cause. Mandela’s quest was “for a democratic and free society” and by announcing this quest to the world, he, metaphorically speaking, created a destination for himself and fellow questers to journey towards as they battled against the tyranny of apartheid. Had Mandela’s goal been to win power and leadership of the country, the outcome and miracle of South Africa’s transition from apartheid to democracy would’ve been starkly different. But Mandela was on a noble quest that would benefit millions and his quest became a guiding beacon and the True North, from which he never deviated.


Never before, though, had his quest been more tested than at the time of Hani’s assassination; these were some of the country’s darkest days. Mandela said he was, “concerned that Hani’s death might trigger a racial war, with the youth deciding that their hero should become a martyr for whom they would lay down their own lives”. The pressure was mounting on Mandela to withdraw from negotiations with South Africa’s white ruling party and to heed the call for an armed revolution. The white government had little international support and there were those around Mandela who were calling for a military victory. But a civil war would not result in a democratic and free society and Mandela knew this.


To stay true to his quest Mandela in his autobiography tells how he instigated two important strategies. Firstly, “in order to forestall outbreaks of retaliatory violence, he arranged a week-long series of mass rallies and demonstrations throughout the country. This would give people a means of expressing their frustration without resorting to violence”. Secondly, he collaborated with his political enemy, the leader of the ruling white party: “Mr de Klerk and I spoke privately and agreed that we would not let Hani’s murder derail the negotiations,” said Mandela.


The assassination of Chris Hani sent South Africa into a state of shock as people from all races looked into a dark abyss. The fragile peace talks hung by a thread. In the days leading up to Hani’s funeral, tensions threatened to explode. He was a living legend, a courageous freedom fighter, military commander and a fiery, passionate orator who could bring crowds cheering to their feet. A confidential cable written by a US diplomat just before the assassination and leaked to the public through Julian Assange’s Wikileaks in 2013, stated: “Hani appears on public platforms in the townships wearing quasi-combat fatigues and delivering fiery speeches that arouse and delight the audience.” In Hani, the killers had chosen the perfect victim to raise an inferno of fury.


A deeply saddened Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, “I fear for our country. Chris Hani, more than anyone else, had the credibility among the young to rein in the radicals." Tutu understood the pulse of the country. If he feared a civil explosion there seemed little hope. Hani was immensely popular especially amongst the “young lions” – comrades who were on the frontline of apartheid’s battleground.


At the time of Hani’s death I was a university graduate working in the strategy and innovations unit of a leading financial services group. The death of Chris Hani had a huge impact on me; I was saddened, shocked and angered. If it came to civil war I would be compelled to fight with the ANC for the dream of a democratic and free South Africa. Not all South African whites feared or resisted the end of apartheid. I looked out of my office window; there had been news of mass demonstrations across the country and as midday approached so did the tens of thousands of black warriors swarming through the streets of Johannesburg. Their cries "Amandla Awethu" – Power to the People – echoed through the streets and the throb of helicopters hovering above the crowds made the air thick with tension. Looking out the window from the sanctuary of my office I could see the procession surging through the streets below. Compelled by Mandela’s words I joined a procession of fellow South Africans. I was swept up in a sea of monumental emotions, carried away by a chanting, heaving, mourning crowd. It was one of the most frightening, exhilarating and uplifting experiences of my life.


The horrors of that Easter weekend in 1993 had a profound and unexpected impact on South Africa’s future. Rather than throw the country into a bitter and crippling civil war, as the killers had hoped it would, within a year of Hani’s death South Africans, regardless of colour, race or creed voted in the country’s first democratic elections.


How did South Africa escape the ravages of a civil war that so many countries in similar situations have been unable to avoid? If you compare and contrast the unrest and civil wars in Rwanda, Ukraine, Syria, Libya, Afghanistan and Iraq’s conflict with Islamic States, then what South Africa achieved was nothing short of a miracle. Something was at work that made the impossible, possible. The peaceful change in South Africa was no doubt due to the extraordinary leadership and vision of Nelson Mandela. Much has been written about his exemplary leadership skills. But, there was also a powerful disruptive force at play that was even bigger than the great man himself.


Following extensive studies of organisations that have embarked on truly world-changing journeys and reflecting on the events that transpired over that ill-fated Easter weekend in 1993, I have come to a realisation. South Africa and the organisations I studied have benefitted from the power and the inspiration of a leader’s quest.  In Mandela’s case his quest evidences all three qualities of a quest. The first quality is the power of delivering meaningful benefits − achieving his quest resulted in a significant and meaningful difference to the lives of millions of disenfranchised South Africans. The second quality is the power of achieving the impossible − many believed Mandela’s quest to be an idealistic endeavour, crazy and unachievable. But as Mandela said, “It always seems impossible until it's done.” The third quality is the power of a target destination. Mandela’s destination was exceptionally clear – a democratic South Africa, free of black or white domination. His destination was devoid of ambiguity and it influenced all his actions and decisions, even after he became president of South Africa.


Leaders that follow on from Mandela could do well to understand the power of quest. 

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