An Unexpected Lesson from Mandela: Why Context Matters: Op-Ed by Bhaskar Chakravorti

Harvard Business Review

Bhaskar Chakravorti is a Senior Associate Dean at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University.

During this time of global contemplation on the deep legacy of Nelson Mandela, I realized I have my own connection to this “giant of history,” which traces back to those heady days of South Africa in 1994. What did I learn from him? Business cannot be left alone to be just business, and, as I learned in Pretoria nearly 20 years ago, leaders ignore this bigger picture at their peril.

From 1994 to 1995, I was traveling across Africa, exploring interest among various governments and telecommunications service companies in investment in the continent’s first undersea fiber-optic network. This would be a breakthrough communication technology, with the power of connecting an excluded and fragmented continent with itself, with the world, and to this newly emerging phenomenon — that none of us quite understood at the time — called the Internet.

Given its economic heft, South Africa was among my first ports of call. Those were exciting times for the country. The ANC had just assumed power and Mandela had made history as the country’s first black president. The world was suddenly considering how to connect to this hitherto isolated country and embracing a potential economic and political powerhouse.

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