There are a couple rooms in Vada O. Manager’s Ahwatukee home that more or less comprise a small museum.
Photos and memorabilia attest to his globe-trotting career as a corporate executive and consultant on business strategies, crisis management and communications that have put him into contact with a legion of public figures.
One figure who is on his mind a lot these days is the late Nelson Mandela, who capped a stunning rise from an imprisoned anti-apartheid activist to become South Africa’s first black president 25 years ago next month.
Manager and a business partner, Phoenix businessman Norris Barker, are marking that 25th anniversary by selling unmarked ballots from the historic election that made Mandela South Africa’s first black president after a half century of white rule.
Barker, who acquired several hundred thousand ballots through a bidding process in South Africa years ago, has partnered with Manager to sell the ballots online through a company called afridom.com.
“There’s a big push for him at this stage,” Manager said. “Two books came out last year about Mandela and these ballots are a reminder of what he represented.”
The ballots also remind Manager of his relationship with Mandela.
Now the CEO of Manager Global Holdings, he led training sessions for Mandela’s cabinet when he first took office in May 1994. Several years later, as an executive for Levi Strauss & Co., Manager opened one of the first corporate manufacturing facilities for jeans and a retail store in South Africa.
Up until then, most major American companies refused to do business in South Africa in protest of the racist apartheid regime that had kept Mandela behind bars for 27 years.
Levi Strauss “is a very progressive company and very in the forefront of racial relations in the US. So, they saw Mandela’s election as an opportunity for them to do more and be one of the first companies to reinvest in South Africa,” Manager explained.
His work with Mandela’s cabinet came at a crucial time since it marked the first time in more than 50 years that the black majority had unseated the minority Dutch population that had ruled the country with often brutal force.
“There was a lot of fear then that there would be revenge on the Afrikaners for all the wrongs they had visited on the black citizens,” Manager said. “But to his credit, Mandela brough reconciliation and forgiveness to the country.”
Still, his cabinet needed schooling.
“The ANC (African National Congress) officials were getting ready to assume control of this massive government that they have never had any experience with,” Manager recalled.
Manager’s experience had prepared him for advising a fledgling government.
As a political science major at Arizona State University in the early 1980s, he was appointed as the student representative to the Arizona Board of Regents by Gov. Bruce Babbitt, and after graduation joined Babbitt’s staff as a senior advisor.
Manager then became Babbitt’s presidential campaign press secretary.
In 1988, Manager found himself again in Arizona’s state government after Rose Mofford became governor, replacing Evan Meacham after his impeachment.
Given her abrupt ascendance, Mofford looked for experienced government hands and turned to Babbitt’s former aides.
Manager in 1992 then traveled to Washington., D.C., to become the press secretary for then Mayor Sharon Pratt.
Two years later, he joined the D.C. firm of Powell Tate, where he was involved in strategic planning processes and co-managed the accounts of some of that firm’s high-powered clients, including Major League Baseball and the PGA Tour.
From there he joined Levi Strauss, staying with that company for a few years before signing on with Nike, which gave him the opportunity to take basketball legend Michael Jordan on a tour of the factory to see the first pairs of the athlete’s famous Air Jordan shoes manufactured.
Manager now keeps his hand in a variety of business activities under the umbrella of his holding company. He also is on a number of corporate and national nonprofit boards, including Valvoline.
The ballots list 19 candidates’ names and photos.
That he and Norris were able to acquire so many reflects the historic nature of the election itself.
Since blacks for the first time in decades could vote, long lines formed at polling places throughout the country.
Because the government had no idea how many voters to expect, Manager said, “there was an overrun of ballots because they wanted to be sure they had enough.
“If you remember the pictures from that time, there were lines of Africans all across the countryside with people wanting to vote for the first time,” he added.
That’s why the ballots call to Manager’s mind “the stirring imagery of young and old voters standing in lines winding through the township hillsides awaiting the right to freely vote.”
An imbedded watermark and the special paper used to print the ballots aren’t the only assurances of their authenticity. The ballots also have a sticker affixed by the South African/International Election Commission with the name and picture of the Zulu party candidate that was included on the ballot at the last minute after his supporters threatened to derail the election if he wasn’t included.
He’s as proud of the ballots that powered Mandela to office as he is of the piece of the Berlin Wall that he managed to obtain during a trip to Germany.
“I consider meeting Nelson Mandela and performing my small role in the transition process one of the most fulfilling moments of my professional career,” he said. “It changed my perspectives on democracy, business and our interdependence upon one another as a people.”