Mandela once famously said, “It always seems impossible until it’s done.” As we reflect on his leadership and legacy, these words ring true. In 2015, the United Nations established the Nelson Mandela Rules, a set of guidelines for the treatment of prisoners. This is a testament to Mandela’s courage and resilience, having spent 27 years, including time in solitary confinement on Robben Island.

President Mandela believed that challenges can either break or make individuals. This sentiment is evident in his leadership, character, and way of life. The Nelson Mandela Freedom Plaza serves as a reminder that the impossible can become possible through struggle, moral conviction, belief, and resilient leadership. It’s easy to imagine President Mandela engaging in a conversation with Abraham Lincoln, discussing these shared values just across the road on the National Mall.


Numerous leaders have contributed to the realization of Mandela’s vision. I would like to extend my heartfelt gratitude to Judy Ansley, Chair of the Board of the USIP, as well as former chairs Ambassador George Moose and Steve Hadley. I also want to thank President Lise Grande for her leadership and support, Nancy Zirkin, Chairperson of the International Advisory Council, and the incredible USIP team, including Rusty, Bob, and Anne Marie, who organized today’s event.

I am especially grateful to three dear friends who have been constant sources of encouragement throughout this project: Chet Crocker, my mentor, General G Mattis, and Steve Whisnant. I would also like to express my appreciation to Senator Warnock and Ambassador Brigety for their insightful remarks, and Ambassador, thank you for your leadership in South Africa. Lastly, I want to acknowledge my dear wife Teresa, whose unwavering love and support have carried us through this journey.

In my twenties, I had the honor of working with President Mandela. When I was just 26 years old, he unexpectedly asked me to help rebuild law enforcement and intelligence in South Africa following a devastating bombing. This led to the establishment of the Directorate of Special Operations, also known as the Scorpions, which aimed to protect South Africa’s young democracy from corruption, organized crime, and terrorism.

During my time working with President Mandela on this project, I learned invaluable leadership lessons. Today, I would like to share a few of these lessons because I believe the Nelson Mandela Freedom Plaza embodies them. Firstly, President Mandela emphasized the alliance between South Africa and the United States. He believed, much like Winston Churchill, that fighting with allies is no easy task. That’s why he developed a deep admiration for America and made multiple visits to strengthen the bond between our nations.

When President Mandela asked me to establish this unit, he urged me to find the best people in America who could help defend democracy in South Africa. The first person I introduced to him was a senior CIA officer. In South African culture, men often hold hands as a sign of friendship or kinship. So, when this officer met President Mandela, the first thing he did was hold his hand throughout the entire meeting. Their connection was unbreakable, a symbol of the partnership they were forging. When it was time for the officer to leave, Mandela told him, “South Africa needs your help.” Later, when some forces tried to spread disinformation about their collaboration, Mandela released a press statement with the headline: “Mandela asked CIA Chief’s Help to Combat Organized Crime in South Africa.”

So, President Mandela had a deep admiration for America and a strong belief in the power of alliances. He also recognized the strength that diversity brings. When we formed the Scorpions, he insisted on recruiting 100 bright young black graduates, half of whom would be trained by the FBI at Quantico and the other half at Scotland Yard. They were the first foreigners to complete a full FBI training course.

President Mandela understood that these young recruits lacked practical experience in handling tough cases. To address this, he instructed me to find detectives from the old order who had aligned themselves with democracy and believed in the New South Africa. We brought them into the unit to provide training and mentorship to the young graduates, especially when it came to challenging cases. And we successfully accomplished this task.

This brings me to the second lesson in leadership that I want to share: President Mandela believed in the power of reconciliation, even when it seemed difficult or out of reach. He understood that embracing reconciliation could unlock new possibilities.

The third lesson is something that truly defined him as a person. President Mandela often emphasized the importance of cherishing democracy, not just protecting or defending it. He deeply valued democracy and had learned its worth through personal suffering and hardship.

He instilled this value in the Scorpions, making it clear that the unit must be beloved by the people. He wanted the people to feel that the unit was on their side, looking out for the weak, vulnerable, and poor. At the same time, he wanted the unit to strike fear into the hearts of the wrongdoers.

Lastly, I want to highlight President Mandela’s message of optimism and resilience. During a particularly challenging time, when we felt defeated by some very bad individuals, he reminded me of his own experiences. In prison, he had twice read in the newspapers that he was dead, and yet he persevered and became the president. He told me that we must be optimists, unwavering in our belief, and that no blade is sharp enough to cut through the soul of a sinner who continues to believe, try, struggle, and rise again.

This, I believe, is the essence of the Nelson Mandela Freedom Plaza. Thank you.



Lise Grande, President, United States Institute of Peace 

Senator Reverend Raphael Warnock

Ambassador George Moose, Former Chair, Board of Directors United States Institute of Peace

Ambassador Reuben E. Brigety II, United States Ambassador to South Africa

Chargé d’Affaires Ntshinga, Embassy of the Republic of South Africa here in Washington

Members of the Diplomatic Corps

Distinguished Guests

Read Ambassador Brigety’s full remarks here.

“I would also like to acknowledge Andre Pienaar for his sustained commitment to the United States Institute of Peace and to preserving the legacy of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, or Madiba.  Andre’s contributions to the Institute’s endowment in honor of Madiba and his service on the Institute’s International Advisory Council have helped foster partnerships that support peace and good governance on the Continent.  As someone who has committed much of my professional life towards those same ends, I want to thank you personally.” United States Ambassador to South Africa, Reuben Brigety.