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Mandela’s Influence Changes an American Life

  • Kim Lewis

Julia A. Wilson with Nelson Mandela
Julia A. Wilson is the CEO and founder of Wilson Global Communications - the first black public relations firm established by an American in the new South Africa - after the end of apartheid. Wilson said her company represented the multicultural complexities in South Africa through its multi-cultural staff of black, white and colored South Africans who spoke in 11 official languages.

The CEO reflected on how, Madiba, as Wilson affectionately referred to Nelson Mandela, influenced her early life. It started with words spoken in a speech he delivered just after being released from prison on Robben Island.

“I remember waking up at five o’clock in the morning in Los Angeles, California, where I was living, sitting in bed, watching and listening to Nelson Mandela make his speech as he was discharged from Robben Island. And it wasn’t the delivery so much, but the profound words, and deep emotion that I felt as I listened,” reflected Wilson, who further recalled that Mandela’s words penetrated her soul, through and through.

“I could empathize because of the civil rights movement here in the United States, and I’m an African American. I could empathize with the situation in South Africa,” she said. And though she said she could not understand fully his sacrifice in prison, she felt everything that he felt, through his words.

She remembered the speech stirred something inside of her that changed not only the course of her life, but location.

“What he said that resonates in my mind is, ‘What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. But it is the difference that we have made in other people’s lives that will determine the significance of the life we lead.’

Shortly after Mandela was released from prison, Wilson was given the opportunity to travel to South Africa as a television news reporter to cover the historical first election in which Mandela was running.

“And that’s when I decided to stay. I had heard only negative images about Africa, African people. And when I got there, and I saw what I saw, I decided that I had to stay and try to help to change some of those images-- to more positive, more balanced images in the media of Africa, Africans, and people of African descent,” explained Wilson.

She then was inspired to found the first American-operated public relations company in the new South Africa. Over the past twenty years Wilson’s company has expanded into China, Brazil, France and other countries around the world. And today, she said, her company’s mission continues on the strong foundation set by Mandela’s legacy.

She would go on to meet Madiba and develop a warm relationship with Winnie Mandela and his daughters, Zinzi and Zenani. Wilson said she grew to love South Africa and that “Mandela’s life helped to create and transform the country into a global model of multicultural collaboration and peaceful transfer of governance.”

On a personal note, she remarked how his life gave her the courage to realize her dreams and still continues to do so. ‘I also continue to share my experiences on South Africa under Madiba’s presidency with 11 million young Internet readers through my online column ‘Fearless Living,’ on”