Oprah: What's the source of your drive to contribute to the world? It feels like an extraordinary force.
Richard: [Laughs] If anybody knows about that force, you do! I love creating things, and as an entrepreneur, I've taken on quite a lot of major corporations and done well. Capitalism is the only system that works, but it has its flaws; for one, it brings great wealth to only a few people. That wealth obviously brings extreme responsibility.
Oprah: That's not so obvious. You could decide to play all day: fly balloons, race around the world, stretch out on an island and drink tequila.
Richard: True. In part, giving back has to do with the way I was brought up and the fact that I've traveled widely and seen terrible situations in the world. To sleep well at night, those of us who are in a position to help must address these situations. I'd get far greater satisfaction out of, say, walking into a hospital I'd built in South Africa than I would by sitting on a beach. I'm fortunate enough to be in a position to make a difference, and I don't want to waste that. I suspect I was also lucky to have parents who drove me from a young age.
Oprah: Did your parents inspire your creativity and courage?
Richard: They certainly encouraged it. They're also good examples of it. My mother has done everything from belly dancing to climbing mountaintops, and in her late 80s, she hasn't slowed down. She spends a lot of time with the Berbers in Morocco, teaching them English. We're still a very close family, and that closeness has given me lots of strength. My parents travel with me wherever I go. They were with me at the first Elders conference in South Africa.
Oprah: Where did the idea for the Elders come from?
Richard: In Africa, villagers look up to elders; they are the moral voice of their community. My friend Peter Gabriel and I felt that the world needed a group of wise leaders to look up to—men and women who are beyond ego, who can look past their borders and take on global issues. That's why we created the Elders—a group of 12 respected people who can intervene in the world's conflicts. Before the Iraq war, I was involved in attempting to avert the conflict. I felt that the only way it could be stopped would be for an elder of great stature to persuade Saddam Hussein to step down and go live elsewhere, in Libya or Saudi Arabia—the same way Idi Amin [the late Ugandan dictator and president] was persuaded to step down. I had hoped we could avoid maiming and killing thousands of people and all the misery to follow. Nelson Mandela seemed to be the obvious elder to do that, since he'd already spoken out against the war. I talked to him, and he agreed to see Saddam if Kofi Annan [former secretary-general of the United Nations] would go with him and if South African president Thabo Mvuyelwa Mbeki gave his blessing. A week later, both agreed, but that same week, the bombing began. So the conversation between Hussein and Mandela never took place.