I reflect on January 1999 as a time of firsts. It was my first time being selected to the West Indies cricket team, and we were on tour in South Africa. I was only 19 at the time, and the youngest player named to the this team in 35 years. It was the first time that the West Indies team was playing on South African soil in the post-apartheid era, and our team was a wonderful representation of the ethnic plurality of the Caribbean. This would therefore have been the first time the South African cricket fans would have seen our team live.
And of course, South Africa was at the time being led by her first democratically elected president, President Nelson Mandela. People across the globe, myself included, were quite familiar with the extremely inspiring story of this great leader, who, through his determination, compassion and resilience, changed the course of history, and led his country from oppression to prosperity. As President, he gave priority to reconciliation by introducing policies aimed at combatting poverty, and inequality in South Africa. President Mandela, affectionately called “Madiba” by his countrymen, was then, and still is now, a revered icon, an exemplary leader and the epitome of forgiveness and humility.
During this tour, I was fresh out of high school, and beyond excited at launching into international cricket in South Africa at such an auspicious time in the country’s history. Playing at the stadia in Johannesburg and Cape Town, I recall the energy and almost palpable hope of a people, who now experienced a restoration of equality and human dignity, of which they were deprived for so long. At the same time, I vividly remember my own faltering confidence. I was but a baby compared with some of the great cricketers on the West Indies Team, and I felt immense pressure to prove myself between the wickets and cement my place on the squad.
January 14th, 1999 was my 20th birthday; we played against the South African team that day at Newlands Ground in Cape Town and I received birthday wishes via the electronic scoreboard at the ground—this was very exciting and overwhelming. I returned to the team hotel that evening and had just entered my room when the phone rang. The operator said, “Mr Ganga, I have the President on the line to you.” I, of course, assumed it was the WICB or TTCB President, so I nonchalantly accepted the call with the routine “Hello, good evening.”
I was immediately taken aback at the unfamiliar voice on the other end. The soft spoken gentleman on the other side of the line identified himself, with his South African accent as President Mandela. He said he was calling to wish me a Happy Birthday. In total amazement, I enquired politely whether I was indeed speaking to the President of SA, and he confirmed with a yes. Needless to say, I was in total shock and struggled to keep my wits about me during this conversation, but I will never forget the words spoken to me on that day, or the humility of the man who spoke them.
President Mandela congratulated me as the youngest member of the West Indies team on tour and went on to say how very happy he was to see our team and welcomed us to his country. He reiterated that this tour was especially important for the people of South Africa as they have followed the exploits of our team and drew great inspiration and hope from it. He offered words of encouragement to me in terms of my career, and said that I was a role model to young people everywhere.
As if it were not enough that the great Nelson Mandela had personally called me out of the blue, the President went on to say that he had arranged a surprise for me and he wished me all the very best in my career. As soon as I hung up on the phone there was a knock on the door and a table was brought in loaded with cake, ice cream and champagne...for days thereafter I remained in shock and amazement at the humility and class of this great man.
Ladies and gentlemen, that phone call changed my life. As I wrote in my thank-you letter to President Mandela, and I quote: “I was extremely surprised by your generous gesture, and beyond humbled that you, the President of South Africa, an international icon and one of my personal heroes, would take the time to call me personally. “I was intensely moved that you were even aware of my existence; a young, aspiring cricketer, from humble beginnings, in a rural village, in a small island in the Caribbean, striving for greatness on the cricket field, homesick and struggling to remain optimistic.
“Your words of encouragement and recognition motivated me to believe in myself and to doggedly pursue my dreams. To this day, I reflect on this interaction as a life changing moment, and this memory has inspired my successes over the course of my professional cricket career and my personal life.” After that phone call, ladies and gentlemen, I experienced what is commonly called “a paradigm shift”. You see, at that stage of my life, I was extremely focused on myself; my fitness, my batting, my form, my goals and my career.
However, the sheer magnitude of the impact of that very brief encounter with President Mandela made me realize that, while I was nowhere close to being in the same category of greatness of this man, I had the potential, as a sportsman and a public figure, to do the same for others; I could play a positive and meaningful role in the lives of young people, just by taking the time to show concern, appreciation and compassion for them. Since then, I have taken a keen interest in mentoring young people, especially during my tenures in leadership positions.
I have sought opportunities to assist young people off the cricket field as well, and to guide and encourage them to be all that they can be. It was this vision that gave birth to the Daren Ganga Foundation, whose purpose is to mentor young people, motivate and inspire them to realize their full potential, and to support their development through financial assistance, coaching and scholarship programmes. Ladies and gentlemen, I could go on and on about the many life lessons that I have learned from President Mandela, but please allow me to leave you with just two more.
1. The first is that where you are now, doesn’t determine where you will be in the future. If President Mandela had given up while imprisoned, believing he would never be freed, where would this country be today? With this in mind, I determined very early on that my humble beginnings would never restrict my progress and prevent me from achieving my dreams. Very few people know of the fact that I would take busses from one side of the island to the other with my heavy cricket bat, and then walk at least a mile to the Queen’s Park Oval to practice with the team. Or that my cricket gear was so worn that other players would loan me theirs out of sheer pity for first class games. But I was determined to make it as a cricketer, and equally as determined to succeed in school, and would not allow any external circumstance to stand in my way. As I mention school, and, this is just an aside, I happily draw a parallel here to myself and President Mandela; we both pursued law degrees from the University of London, through distance learning programmes, and eventually we both attained a degree in Law. Of course, the conditions were different, but I am proud to have something else in common with President Mandela.
2. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I have learned to appreciate the value of each human being, to honour each person’s dignity, and to recognise that we are all equal, and equally fallible. We are all God’s children, and we never fully understand the purpose he has for each of us. It is our duty to treat each other with respect, kindness and love; this President Mandela has demonstrated during his lifetime, even in circumstances where most human beings would lash out in anger and hate, he maintained this noble disposition, and never answered racism with racism. I believe you would all agree with me that this world would be an entirely better place, if each of us would commit to showing such humility and respect for other human beings.