If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”

“Without language, one cannot talk to people and understand them; one cannot share their hopes and aspirations, grasp their history, appreciate their poetry, or savor their songs.” ~ Nelson Mandela

I don’t often write on current events but I think this is a worthwhile exception. Like many people around the world, last night I heard the news of Nelson Mandela’s passing and reflected on his legacy. I spent time perusing memorial articles and reading his famous quotes. Of all of his powerful and compelling statements, none resonate with me as deeply as those two quotes.  His words remind me of the most powerful scene in Bryce Courtney’s novel The Power of One: the evening of the “Concerto of the Southlands.” I believe they illustrate why he was able to unite his nation and facilitate reconciliation.

In The Power of One the “Concerto of the Southlands” blends together the tribal songs of five African tribes. Doc, an old German professor who is interned at a local prison during World War II, composes it as a farewell to the prisoners. On the night of the concert, all of the tribes—the Zulus, the Swazis, the Ndebele, the Sotho and the Shangaans—unite their voices with Doc’s Steinway. Peekay, the main character who has become a symbol of hope, orchestrates the concert.

Peekay reminds me of Mandela (though he is a white African). He has a natural ability to cross racial barriers.  The reason why he is able to do this is because he learns the languages of South Africa. He speaks Afrikaans like a native, though his first language is English. He speaks and understands many tribal African languages. It is not only his ability to speak these languages that makes him singular, it is that he speaks to their hearts when he speaks their language. He embraces the poetry of tribal languages and follows the etiquette of Afrikaans. What he is to young to realize is that when he addresses others in their language he is affirming their dignity, their humanity.

I do not know how many languages Mandela literally spoke, besides his native Xhosa and English, but there are other ways to speak to the heart of your audience and affirm their humanity and dignity. That is what Mandela did. It is what made him singular. He stands out from other humanitarians and motivational speakers because he created unity by respecting difference. He was able to bring his nation together because he sought to understand and appreciate their uniqueness while also seeing their shared humanity and genuinely believing that they were all worth fighting for, even those who were his enemies.

Feature image from the Nelson Mandela Foundation.

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