21 Icons was launched in Johannesburg recently with photographer Adrian Steirn and legendary storyteller Gcina Mhlophe. The 21 Icons project is currently in its second season and celebrates the lives of the men and women who strive to make South Africa a better place. The multimedia project was pioneered by Steirn and with his dedicated team the project has captured the lives of heroes like Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Gcina Mhlophe, Hugh Masekela, Herman Mashaba, Nadine Gordimer and many more. During the launch at Love Books Steirn said the coffee table book is the analogue version of the project.
Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu wrote in the forward of 21 Icons: “Through his special lens, Adrian captures not only the wonderful faces of men and women who inspire others, but also the essence of Ubuntu latent in the spirits, smiles and efforts of these people.”
Read Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu’s forward, shared by 21 Icons:
In pursuit of ubuntu
I come from a beautiful land, richly endowed by God with wonderful natural resources, wide expanses, rolling mountains, singing birds, bright shining stars out of blue skies, with radiant sunshine, golden sunshine. Today it is free, thanks, in large part, to the efforts of a single person.
Never before in history was one human being so universally acknowledged in his lifetime, as the embodiment of magnanimity and reconciliation, as was Nelson Mandela. He set aside the bitterness of enduring twenty-seven years in apartheid prisons – and the weight of centuries of colonial division, subjugation and repression – to personify the spirit and practice of ubuntu. He perfectly understood that people are dependent on other people in order for individuals and society to prosper; that we are people through other people.
We can’t be fully human alone. We are made for interdependence, we are made for family. Indeed, my humanity is caught up in your humanity and, when your humanity is enhanced, mine is enhanced as well. Likewise, when you are dehumanised, inexorably, I am dehumanised as well. As an individual, when you have ubuntu you embrace others. You are generous, compassionate. If the world had more ubuntu, we would not have war. We would not have this huge gap between the rich and the poor. You are rich so that you can make up what is lacking for others. You are powerful so that you can help the weak, just as a mother or father helps their children. This is what Mandela knew.
The twenty-seven years spent in the belly of the apartheid beast deepened Madiba’s compassion and capacity to empathise with others. Like a most precious diamond honed deep beneath the surface of the Earth, the Madiba who emerged from prison, in February 1990, was virtually flawless. Instead of calling for his pound of flesh, he proclaimed the message of forgiveness and reconciliation, inspiring others,
by his example, to extraordinary acts of nobility of spirit.
There were many occasions when South Africa’s fate appeared touch and go. But catastrophe was avoided. Instead, the world marvelled – indeed, was awed – by the spectacle of long lines of South Africans of every race slowly snaking their way to the polling booths on 27 April 1994.
Of course, part of the success of South Africa’s transition was due to a miracle: the moral colossus that was Nelson Mandela. His calm and sagacity, and his status as an icon of forgiveness, compassion, magnanimity and reconciliation, make us the envy of every nation on earth. We are blessed that it was he who guided our state through its rebirth. And we must also thank FW de Klerk, the last ruler of the dying apartheid regime, who exhibited moral courage by setting in motion our liberating revolution.
But ordinary South Africans can also be proud of themselves, for it was truly their self-discipline, simple decency and ability to forgive that prevented a blood bath. In their example is a model for other troubled parts of the world to follow.
Inspired by Madiba’s great legacy, photographer and filmmaker Adrian Steirn, together with creative director Harriet Pratten, established the 21 Icons project when visiting South Africa from Australia. Today, they too call our glorious country ‘home’. Like many global friends of our nation, they have joined hands with us in an extraordinary commitment to supporting the journey of building South Africa. Through his special lens, Adrian captures not only the wonderful faces of men and women who inspire others, but also the essence of ubuntu latent in the spirits, smiles and efforts of these people.
The 21 Icons project is indeed a gift to our nation on the occasion of the twentieth year since achieving our hard-earned democracy, one that reflects the charm, humility and sincerity of South Africa’s remarkable people. It reminds us that South Africa is a nation of ordinary people doing extraordinary things. One of my favourite portraits, among all the beautiful work captured here, is Madiba’s photograph. Like him, we must each hold the mirror to our face and truly look at ourselves. We must reflect without judgment, but with compassion, forgiveness and love. We must look at ourselves, embracing all that we are in order to be more tolerant of others. We must believe with conviction – as have Madiba and I throughout our lives – in a brighter future for South Africa; in the capacity of its people to create positive change; and in the extraordinary power of collective effort.
Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu