By Saul Molobi

My friendship with Refilwe Monageng went back to 2003 when I was a Chief Director: Marketing Communications at the Department of Trade and Industry. I had launched a multimedia advertising campaign aimed at developing entrepreneurship in South Africa based on popular and catchy music lyrical one liners that people could relate to. The most popular ones were Mandoza’s “uzoyi ‘ithola kanjani u hlele ekhoneni” (a Zulu phrase meaning “how could you get it when you’re just sitting on your laurels?”), Sankomota’s “o phuthile matsogo, o shebile banna ba ya mosebetsing” (“you have folded your hands watching men working hard”) and 50 Cents’ “make money or die trying”.

Refilwe was working for a Soweto community radio station which appeared the most popular at the time perhaps because of the huge size of the township’s reasonably affluent population. He wanted us to purchase airtime to flight commercials.

We had a discussion on the station’s programming but in the end agreed that flighting commercials wasn’t ideal as it wouldn’t make the kind of huge impact I wanted the campaign to make. Instead, we agreed to launch a weekly programme on the station. Since then, we maintained cordial relations and I would often advise him on some of the projects he was working on.

This time he called me from Rome asking me for a hotel in Milan. Naturally I offered to host him. A few days later Refilwe and his wife arrived in Milan at our home. Typical of him, he used every opportunity to ask about trade and investment opportunities for South Africans. I outlined our economic diplomacy programme. Key among them was the multidisciplinary project I had just conceptualised which I called the “South Africa Week”. I informed him I did not have a budget for it so I was going to mobilise support from the private sector.

The key activities for the “South Africa Week” were erecting the Nelson Mandela statue in Milan; hosting a business seminar (which was to be attended by the South African entrepreneurs matched with their Italian counterparts); launching the inaugural South Africa-Italy Business Awards in partnership with the Italy-South Africa Chamber of Trade and Industry; and basically doing everything necessary to entrench brand South Africa in Italy.

He then asked how much was the statue going to cost. €18 000! I said. “I will sponsor the statue!” he said matter-of-factly.

Sceptical, I moved our discussion to touch on other things.

A few days later Refilwe and his wife left for home. Two weeks later, he called me to update me on his dealings with the South African Reserve Bank to transfer money to the sculptor we had appointed. I felt so guilty that I had doubted his promises.

I finalised our contract with the sculptor, Pietro Scampini. Previously, he was inspired by the isiNdebele culture to produce huge garden sculptures. He had also produced a book about some of his work. So I was comfortable with him undertaking the project. He charged us modestly as his way of giving back to South Africa, a country whose indigenous cultures have inspired his work. We identified the location right in front of the South African Consulate-General, and completed the contractual agreement with the City of Milan. One project of the South Africa week was in the pocket.

The Department of Trade and Industry in Pretoria bought into the project and agreed to fund the business awards and our event aimed at promoting South African cuisine and wine. The City of Johannesburg funded a number of entrepreneurs to the event. The Gauteng Economic Development Department sent a delegation too. Investors in South Africa committed to partnering with us. The City of Milan provided us with an excellent venue for free.

Above all else, Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane sent urgent confirmation that she would come to unveil the statue. The Minister of Tourism confirmed he would preside over the Italy-South Africa Tourism Award, which was the second installment of the awards in which we were to recognise the service excellence with which Italian tour operators promoted South Africa as a tourism destination of choice.

Although I had argued that the statue shouldn’t be an abstract artistic piece, but should be as real as possible and even sent the sculptor photos of our global icon, unfortunately the fine artist in him still used artistic licence to produce an imperfect creation. I was not comfortable with the extraordinarily large eyes he made. The sculptor argued that these were to represent Mandela’s foresightedness and the true visionary he was – being able to see beyond the ordinary!

Indeed, we placed the statue firmly on the ground to show that Mandela was indeed a man of the people! Every day we witnessed scores of people posing for photos with the statue.

Captioning the statue is accreditation given to the South African foreign affairs Minister and the Mayor of Milan, who unveiled the statue. Also acknowledged was Refilwe Monageng, the sponsor. This will remain for posterity.

“The statue we inaugurated was the fifth statue of Nelson Mandela outside South Africa, but the first one after his passing on. We have donated the statue to the City of Milan, as per the city’s bylaws, to express the gratitude of our country to this great city and its citizens who have always supported our people and the programmes the mission has solicited their support for. The statue is an expression of the diplomacy of “Ubuntu/botho” that Nelson Mandela left as a legacy and daily practised by our Government in its relations with the rest of the world”, declared Minister Nkoana-Mashabane. “We thank all those who made this artwork possible, which from today belongs to the cultural heritage of the city”.

This statue wasn’t the first of the Nelson Mandela memorial sites in northern Italy. A year before in 2014, in celebrating 20 years of South Africa’s freedom, we partnered with the City of Milan and our private sector sponsors, particularly Build Energy, a world-renowned renewable energy company with vast investments in South Africa and across the world, to create a mural to pay homage to Nelson Mandela’s legacy. Enlisting the services of young graffiti artists, we produced a huge mural.

I officially opened the mural with the Mayor of the City of Milan, His Worship Giuliano Pisapia. There was much media frenzy at the launch. Our primary sponsor, Building Energy, paid for the services of the young artists and even produced a video on the making of that mural. The City of Milan provided us with the space for free and lighting for the mural.

What I couldn’t achieve doing before the end of my tenure in Italy was to convince the tourism company that managed “hop on, hop off” sightseeing buses to include information about the mural in their recorded audio guide since it was on a tour bus route. This excellent idea came from my wife.

There were other initiatives aimed at anchoring the legacy of Nelson Mandela in our foreign policy. After that fateful Thursday of 5 December 2013, the shocking news spread like wildfire across the world. The next morning I was approached by some young Italian member of parliament in Milan requesting we partner with them on project based on reading extracts from Nelson Mandela’s book, “Long walk to freedom” at a public square. They told me Mayor Giuliano Pisapia would also be present. Within seconds, the public square was full of people. The location was ideal because it was just outside the metro station.

I can confirm that many people were late for work that day because they needed to be part of the Mandela mania that was sweeping across the world.

Throughout the week I received dignitaries and authorities from the City of Milan and the Lombardy Regional Government, my peers in the Consular Corps and countless men and women who wanted to pay homage to that son of the soil.

In partnership with the City of Milan, we organised a memorial service at one of the prestigious cathedrals in the city. Once again, the municipality gave us the venue to use for free. The memorial service, held on 10 December 2013, was at the prestigious Chiesa di San Giorgio al Palazzo. The service was attended by the consular corps, Vice President of the Lombardy Province and a Deputy Mayor of Milan on behalf of Mayor Pisapia, veterans of the anti-apartheid movement represented by Professor Itala Vivan and Enrico Dodi; and the general public. It was heartening for me to have a long-time friend and comrade from home, Maurice Smithers and his wife, Theresa Giorza, among the attendants. I was hosting the couple at the official residence during their visit to Italy.

My then Social Secretary, Ilaria Casati, had brought her five year old son, who whispered in her ear: “What happened to Mandela?” She explained. Looking down in sadness, slowly shaking his head in disbelief and resting his chin on his tiny hand, he said: “Oh, poor Mandela! I am so sorry, mom.” It then transpired that all along the young man had been telling his teachers and classmates that his mother worked for Nelson Mandela’s government at the SouthAfrican Consulate-General. The innocence of children.

The following Saturday, the day of the funeral, I was invited by the Italian rugby federation to plant a tree at the public park along Via Leonardo da Vinci, opposite the Milan Polytechnic campus and unveil the memorial stone in honour of our late former state president. After finishing, we all dashed home to watch the funeral proceedings.

The rugby fraternity in Milan wanted to feel the impact of the “Invictus” moment, which was created during the rugby World Cup of 1996 when through the magic of our legendary leader, the sport united South Africans across the colour bar, and the Madiba magic inspired our national team, the Springboks, to triumph. This teary moment of utter excitement and exuberance was immortalised in a world-renowned movie, “Invictus”, directed by Clint Eastwood and starring the legendary Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon.

The Mission continued to receive many requests from institutions to name this or that institution or programme after Nelson Mandela. These ranged from a primary school in far flung northern Italy to a huge stadium on the outskirts of Milan. We endorsed all of these requests on the advice of the Nelson Mandela Foundation in Johannesburg.

So Mandela was promoted not only in huge metropolitan cities such as Milan and Turin, but also in small northern Italian cities – and one such was Treviso. The event, aptly titled “Tribute to Nelson Mandela – an extraordinary life”, was held on 21 January 2015 having been organised by the CEO and President of the Englosax Centre, Franck Bijoux. The Englosax Centre is a non-profit organisation for the promotion of AngloCulture and learning dedicated to institutionalising multiculturism while propagating the development of English in Italy. Fewer than ten percent of Italians have English competency skills.

The other notable Mandela memorial site was launched in 2014 by the City of Milan with the Nelson Mandela Foundation and the Nelson Mandela Forum, a non-governmental organisation in southern Italy. I was invited to join the CEO of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, Sello Hatang. There were dignitaries and celebrities such as soccer personalities and a Mandela Children’s Fund brand ambassador, Clarence Seedorf, who was the coach for Inter Milan, one of the leading Italian premier league clubs.

Located in the “Garden of Remembrance”, the Mayor and Sello Hatang planted a tree and unveiled a plaque dedicated to Mandela. The garden, on a hillock made from the rubble of buildings destroyed by the bombings during the Second World War, was a reminder to humanity not to forget the ideals of fighting against discrimination of any nature. The trees planted represented several world renowned figures who stood for justice, peace and reconciliation.

Needless to say the Mission ensured that dignitaries from South Africa included a visit to these memorial sites in their itinerary and official programmes. I believe this will stand as a tradition for many years to come.

The other Mandela-related activity was the celebration of Nelson Mandela International Day every year on 18 July. We built a strong relationship with a drop-in centre for the elderly just on the outskirts of Milan. The elderly, some of them older than Nelson Mandela himself, received the Mission staff with open and warm hearts. The local municipality also came on board and we would take care of the elderly from morning until lunch, playing games or drawing sketches. As is customary in Italy, lunch and dinner are taken with a glass of wine. The South African wine we provided was much enjoyed.

The Mandela name was a magic potion in our foreign policy promotion and implementation. My humble experience was that it added so much equity to brand South Africa. If I was making a country presentation, and read the mood that my audience’s attention was wandering off, all I needed to do to get them interested again was to say: “As Nelson Mandela once said… “

I have successfully used this strategy even during difficult question and answer sessions, especially when my audience raised questions around perceived high levels of crime and corruption in our country. Nobody in the audience dared to challenge anything said by our global icon. He was the full embodiment of peace, interracial harmony, reconciliation, gender parity and a fierce exponent of development and the equitable distribution of the country’s resources in which all were to benefit. He was the epitome of ubuntu/botho, one of our cardinal foreign policy principles. The Nelson Mandela iconoclasm has to be at the core of what brand South Africa should be!


Saul Molobi’s “Sound and Fury: The Chronicles of Healing” was published and launched by Brandhill Africa (Pty) Ltd on 25 February 2021. The book may be ordered directly from and the e-book version is available on Amazon.