Nelson Mandela Foundation

The Nelson Mandela Foundation was hoping to hang on to one of its greatest advisers, despite her retiring from the Foundation Board, CE Sello Hatang said on 22 November.

Irene Menell was one of the first people Nelson Mandela asked to join the Foundation’s Board after he stood down from his presidency in 1999. She has also served on the Board of the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund and that of the READ Educational Trust in a life of service spanning more than 50 years.

“My logic was always to do what Mrs Menell would do,” said Hatang at a farewell ceremony for Menell, a recipient of the Order of the Baobab (Silver) for her community service and dedication to the educational empowerment of black youth. “Now that sounding board is gone, but we can still use your logic,” he said.

Menell was founding chair of the READ Educational Trust, established in 1979 to promote education for black children at a time when it was beleaguered.

“We’re all privileged to serve, not Madiba, but what he stood for – that very, very deep respect for human beings,” said Menell, using Mandela’s clan name, by which he is affectionately known.

Menell described Mandela as “the best fundraiser that the world has ever seen” and told of how his fundraising and the Foundation’s resultant grant-giving somewhat smothered the Foundation’s original mandate in its initial years.

The Foundation’s core work is to contribute to a just society by promoting Mandela’s vision and work and convening dialogue around critical social issues. It also works to generate an integrated and dynamic information resource on the life and times of Nelson Mandela.

“I have a profound belief in incremental change,” said Menell. Every good work every person did helped to make the world a better place, and grand visions, while important, were often impractical.

“To set out to change the world, which we all want to do, is not practical. [It is practical] to value the small things and, over time, we can look back and say, ‘Hey, we made an impact.’”

Menell first met Mandela in the late 1950s, after she and her husband, mining executive Clive Menell, had helped to finance the 1959 staging of South Africa’s first all-black musical, King Kong. The show, incidentally, was restaged in Johannesburg this year.

“I’ve seen it three times,” said Menell. “The first time I thought, ‘Oh, this is not King Kong’ ... The third time I loved it.”

The 1959 show was loved by Mandela, who reportedly saw it more than once. Some time after that the Menells were asked to host him in Cape Town, and did. Clive Menell and Mandela became firm friends.

“I don’t know what it was about them, but they did click very well,” Menell said. “It’s embarrassing, but Clive did not carry pictures of his children in his wallet. He carried pictures of Mandela.”

Asked about recent criticism of Mandela as a “sell-out” who pandered to big money, Menell said she firmly believed none of the relationships Mandela forged throughout his life were insincere. “He was practical,” she said. “These were people who could help his cause.”

Menell said it was true the years of Mandela’s presidency – 1994 to 1999 – acted as a “Band Aid that covered a very toxic society”.

She said the criticisms that he was too forgiving of South Africa’s white community deserved full consideration and a proper answer. She also said there was no way Mandela, or anyone, could have cured South Africa of its ills in so short a time.

“Thank you for the kind of service you gave Madiba, and the kind of service you gave all of us,” said Hatang, closing the ceremony.

Menell’s community service ranges from the READ Educational Trust, the Nelson Mandela Foundation and the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund, to her more than 25 years as a manager in liberal politician Helen Suzman’s Houghton constituency. She is also patron of Afrika Tikkun, a youth development organisation, and other organisations.

As a parting, Menell told Foundation staff to “make your contribution in this very, very transitional and confusing world ... Just be your best you. It’s a cliche, but it is not a bad one.”