Ambassador Harriet Elam-Thomas, director of the Diplomacy Program at the University of Central Florida, remembers Nelson Mandela fondly and credits him for changing the world and for personally inspiring her to become a more effective U.S diplomat and mentor.
“He clearly led the path after (Mahatma) Gandhi in teaching us the value of a human being no matter their race, color, sex or sexual orientation,” Elam-Thomas said. She listened to Mandela address a joint session of Congress on June 26, 1990. “And personally I feel my career, was successful in large part because I was able to sit in that audience and hear him speak. I remember thinking that he was wise to learn Afrikaans, which immediately heightened his ability to communicate with his guards. Mandela believed that speaking in a man’s native language was to speak to his heart. And I then said to myself if this gent displayed no bitterness after 27 years of incarceration and understood his captors, which lead to a deeper understanding of their personalities; I could certainly pass my Turkish [language] exam.”
Elam-Thomas met Mandela after the speech and she said she was almost speechless, a rarity for her.
“I could not put two sentences together,” she said. “I finally managed to say ‘I’m honored to be in your presence.’”
Three weeks later, she passed that Turkish language exam. Her career skyrocketed after her four years in Turkey, leading her to many international posts including U.S. ambassador to Senegal from 2000 to2002.
She retired in 2005 with the rank of career minister, the military equivalent of a three-star general. While her early career included the White House and United Nations, her more senior assignments included acting deputy director of the U.S. Information Agency; public affairs counselor at the American Embassy in Brussels; director of the American Press and Cultural Center in Istanbul cultural attaché at the American Embassy in Athens. She also served on the senior advisory group of the U.S. European Command from 2003 to 2006.
Elam-Thomas said Mandela was a master at seeking consensus and he “believed in the human heart.” Both are powerful in changing the world into the kind of place “we want it to be,” she said.
Today she inspires generations of future foreign diplomats and emphasizes they learn multiple languages because as Mandela put it:
“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.”
And speaking and listening can lead to big positive changes in Africa and around the world.
“For example, I lived to see Barack Obama become our first black president,” Elam-Thomas said.