Lessons in Social Change: Mandela and the Elm

2022 Speech Day at Cheltenham Ladies College

Speech delivered at the 2022 Speech Day (Graduation Ceremony) at Cheltenham Ladies College, UK on 7th July 2022

Good morning to you all!

May I begin by extending a huge word of thanks to Ms Jardine-Young for the very warm introduction and for inviting me to share this beautiful day with you all. When you asked if you could tempt me to Cheltenham for this occasion, I had absolutely no hesitation in saying yes. I greatly admire CLC , I admire your leadership and everything that you do to develop young women who embody excellence in everything.

So first of all and above all, congratulations to the Class of 2022. You must be very proud of all your accomplishments. I join your families, friends and teachers in celebrating you on this day.

At occasions like this, speakers in my position would typically start by saying that you are not likely to remember much of what would be said, and so they would apologise for standing between you and the true celebrations afterwards, before proceeding to then postulate on some of life’s big lessons and hope that you catch some of it, but I am praying for the opposite today. I hope that you will remember everything I say, wouldn’t that be amazing? Especially because I am beginning with a subject that lies at the core of the founding of this town, Cheltenham Spa.

2022 Speech Day at Cheltenham Ladies College

In the Winter of 1739, Captain Henry Skillicorne, who is known as the founding father of Cheltenham Spa, made a very important decision in establishing this town as a tourist destination – he planted trees. Not just any kind of tree, he planted the elm tree. 37 of them – elm and lime. The following year, he planted 96 elm trees. Historical documents record that three years later, by 1743, Cheltenham Spa was attracting people to “an avenue of elm trees which reached for 900 yards or so”. You could say that the elm was achieving its purpose.

But what was it about the elm that made it the tree of choice for Captain Skillicorne in establishing this beautiful town? Perhaps the fact that the elm was one of the most beautifully composed trees you would ever see. It is intricately designed – its leaves are asymmetric at the base; it spreads out but then narrows towards a sharp point at the apex. But the trunk of an elm is its true beauty – graciously tall from the base and branching out to form the shape of a vase.

The elm is strong. Durable. Versatile. Its wood is malleable and resistant to splitting so, over centuries, it was used in making boats and boat parts; it was used in furniture, in wagon wheels, in floor boards, and in ship construction. Because the elm is resistant to decay when permanently wet, it was used in constructing water pipes in medieval Europe; the first piped water brought into London was through wooden pipes made of elm. During the construction of the original London Bridge, elm was used as piers. In historical wars, a large portion of longbows were made of elm. But not just that; during the great famine of 1812, much of the rural population of Norway survived by boiling and eating strips of elm bark.

Politically, the elm has been known for centuries as the symbol of revolutions. In the American revolution of 1765, the white elm in Boston provided the meeting spot for the organizers of the resistance. In the French revolution, in 1790, the elm was planted as a symbol of revolutionary hopes. In the Greek Revolution of 1821, a thousand young elms were planted in Athens. The elm has been the subject of many art pieces; it features in Greek mythology, in Japanese mythology, in Germanic mythology and in Scandinavian mythology. It features in Latin literature, and it features in Shakespeare’s poems. In essence, if you were ever to desire to be made of wood, you would pray that you were made of elm. This was the darling of the forest.

At the peak of its powers, there were more than 30 million elm trees standing here in the United Kingdom alone, having survived more than 20 million years since the Miocene geological period, and having spread first from Asia through the entirety of Europe, the Middle East and North America and as far south as Australasia. But then almost overnight, it disappeared. About 60 years ago, something happened that changed the course of history for the elm tree – something so drastic and devastating that wiped out nearly every elm tree, so much that people suspected that there might have been only about 100 left standing here in the UK.

Today, I am interested in exploring the rise of the elm tree to the heights of global significance and then its subsequent dramatic collapse, and I’m wondering what you and I can learn from it as we pursue lives of extraordinary significance – as we seek to have influence far beyond ourselves.  


Let me take you on a journey.

2022 Speech Day at Cheltenham Ladies College

For nine and half years, I had the great fortune of living in a country that is almost always instantly associated with one man – Nelson Mandela. When we think about extraordinary significance, very few people who have walked the face of the earth would compare to Mandela. Statistically, there are more things named after Mandela around the world than probably any other human being – schools, universities, roads, buildings, bridges, restaurants, supermarkets, stadiums, parks, gardens, community centres, train stations, cities, airports, libraries, hotels, pharmacies, theatres, bars, museums, awards, fellowships… It gets more interesting – dishes, tea, wine, animal species, plants, a nuclear particle, a spider, a sea slug, an orchid, a lobster, a woodpecker! Interestingly, there are more places named for Mandela here in Europe than in Africa. You get the point.

Mandela attained significance at a scale that is nearly incomprehensible. He was revered for many things – his courage, his moral leadership, his personal convictions, his vision through the written and spoken word, his sacrifice for his country, his spirit of forgiveness – all of those things and more. Yet, I often wonder what sustained Mandela through the dark cesspit of incarceration. We know that he served 27 years in prison, 18 of which he served in Robben Island where the warder’s first words to him were “This is the island. This is where you will die”. We know that he was physically assaulted; we know that he contracted tuberculosis from living in a persistently damp prison cell and we know that he developed a lung infection from excessively hard labour on a limestone quarry. So, the question is: what kept him going? What fuelled his optimism? What kept him alive?

I’ve found the answer: comradeship and family.

In many pictures of Nelson Mandela, the spotlight is on one individual, but we know, we have always known, that Mandela was just one of many – that Mandela would not have become THAT one without the many. At the trial in April 1964 that sent him to life in prison, Mandela was not the only one accused – he was one of 11. And when he arrived in prison, he did so in company of his comrades. Unfortunately, history typically reserves space for only one hero, but we must reject that. And even though they may not have the same global acclaim, we salute them, we honour them and we should name them: Walter Sisulu, Denis Goldberg, Govan Mbeki, Ahmed Kathrada, Lionel Bernstein, Raymond Mhlaba, James Kantor, Elias Motsoaledi, Andrew Mlangeni and Bob Hepple.

What we see of our heroes in public is fuelled by what we don’t see in private, and Mandela is the prime example of that. He knew that a living object cannot be cut off from its source of life and still maintain its significance. He knew that an organism is bound to wilt and fade if you tamper with the source of its nutrients. He knew that, but the prison warders knew it as well. Much more than in his comrades, Mandela found strength in his family – his young wife, his mother, his children. He wrote long letters to them and he treasured their replies. He looked forward to their visits. He made every attempt to be a father to his children even from a distance. It hurts to read the words through which he described those long painful years. I feel immensely privileged, yet sad, to have been able to read some of those letters in his own handwriting from my visits to the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg.

One of the most painful times in Mandela’s life was after the death of his mother. He described in one of his letters about her last visit to him in prison and his last sight of her as she walked towards the boat that took her away to the mainland and how he had a sudden feeling that he would never see her again. Shortly after she died, he received a telegram message that his 24-year old son had also died in a car accident. He wrote that his blood turned to ice as he found his way back to his prison cell which he described as “the last place where a man stricken with sorrow should be”. When he requested for special permission to attend his mother’s funeral and his son’s funeral, the answer was no. It was not just a cruel response from the prison warders, it was strategic. It was designed to further break his spirit.

In a letter to his wife, he wrote about the anguish and depression that hit him so viciously. But there was worse – the South African authorities went on to imprison his wife several times, and on one occasion, she was subjected to more than 200 days in confinement without access to a shower. When he heard this, he wrote that his “faculties seemed to stop functioning”. In his words “I feel as if I have been soaked in gall, every part of me, my flesh, bloodstream, bone & soul, so bitter am I to be completely powerless to help you”. It is heart wrenching.

Still, there was worse – to truly silence a man, you have to completely shut him off from the whole world. You have to cut him off at the source and mess with his mind. You have to feed him false information that makes him believe that his loved ones have moved on without him. And they did just that. They refused to deliver his letters, and they withheld letters from him. He had no idea what had truly become of his family. But at least he had his comrades, right? Wrong. For every complaint that he raised in prison, he was subjected to solitary confinement, completely cut away from all human interaction. He wrote: “I found solitary confinement the most forbidding aspect of prison life. There was no end and no beginning; there is only one’s mind, which can begin to play tricks”.


So how do you weaken a powerful force? It’s simple – you deny it access to its source of energy. You restrict its flow of nutrients and virtue. And then you feed it with lies, poison or the fungus – Ophiostoma

In 1921, two brilliant Dutch phytopathologists, Bea Schwarz and Christine Buisman found the answer to the strange phenomenon of the dying elm tree. It turned out that a tiny, seemingly insignificant weevil, the bark beetle, was responsible for the deaths of millions of elm trees. You may be curious: how does the bark beetle infect the elm tree? It attacks the source of its water and nutrients, the xylem. Once they interrupt the tree’s liquid transportation system, the tree will surely starve and lose all moisture. In under a year, it will be dead.


Here is the kicker – the bark beetle attacks the elm tree the same way an immoral system attacks a champion of social justice – both get hit at the source of their power – community. When you see an elm tree in full flow, it would almost always be lined up as a row of trees: “900 yards or so”, as Henry Skillicorne planted them. Mandela was almost always to be found in company of his comrades. Which one of us can do anything without community? 

Hear me clearly: not a single one of you will change the world…by yourselves.

It matters whom you have in your corner. It matters who influences you. It matters where you draw your inspiration. If you observe the budding of a flower, you will realise that you may have all the potential in the world, but you will never truly bloom and bear good fruit without the influence of oxygen, sunlight, water, good soil; you will never truly live up to your promise without the influence of pollinators like butterflies, or bees, or the hummingbird.

Mandela did not single-handedly transform South Africa. Martin Luther King did not singlehandedly champion civil rights in America. And Dorothea Beale did not singlehandedly transform Cheltenham Ladies College into an institution that defied the dictates of its day and taught Math and Science to young girls. Each of these leaders was driven by personal conviction, but they were enabled and supported and encouraged by many. A spark will never truly ignite without the influence of oxygen. Even the most talented genius needs validation sometimes.

On my leadership journey, I have been propelled by many angels; the vary majority of whom have been women. From my very first inspiration, my mother; to the most influential teachers whom I have had from primary school through graduate school; to the donors who graciously funded large parts of my education; to those who first identified my leadership abilities, connected me to opportunities and created spaces within their establishments for me to thrive. To those who have mentored me, encouraged me, inspired me and continued to uplift me. I am truly blessed to have some incredible women in my life without whom I would be nowhere near this platform today.

As I close, I invite you to look around you: look into the eyes of your comrades, your friends, your teachers, your family, your support system. I hope that you will treasure them and remember that you could never have come this far without them.

I hope that you would take a moment to express sincere gratitude to everyone who has invested so much in you. I hope that you will always think fondly of the time that you have spent here at the College, and all the lessons that you have learned. I know that you will go very far and I am rooting for you. We are rooting for you.


Congratulations once again. I wish you all the best, and Godspeed!