Thoughts on Nelson Mandela

by Sarah Joseph 

(speech at the Monash University memorial service to Nelson Mandela at the Monash Religious Centre, 13 December 2013, 1pm)

I am very honoured to be speaking today at this memorial service for Nelson Mandela.

Nelson Mandela, Madiba, was a true human rights inspiration, for his fight against apartheid, but even more so for his role in South Africa’s transition from apartheid and as the father of modern democratic South Africa.

Mandela became a leader in the African National Congress youth wing in 1943. He went on to become a leader of that liberation movement. In 1953, Mandela and Oliver Tambo set up the first black law-firm in South Africa, and were beset by clients who had breached apartheid laws.

Mandela took a more radical stance after the Sharpeville massacre in 1960, advocating armed struggle. This is an issue with which I am sure many of us are uncomfortable, but many of us aren’t battling apartheid.  Indeed, Mandela wasn’t removed from the US terrorism watchlist until 2008.

He was tried in 1964 for sabotage, where he faced the death penalty. At the opening of that trial, he famously stated

I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to see realised. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.

Ultimately he was not sentenced to death but to life imprisonment, which was to last 27 years, most of which was spent on Robben Island in cell 5 as Prisoner 46664, including 13 years of backbreaking and punitive hard labour. That work ruined his eyesight, and even his tearducts; he couldn’t physically cry for many years.

During this time the worldwide anti apartheid movement took off. It was in the 1980s that I first became aware of Mandela, particularly through music. One of my all time favourites is the Special AKA’s Free Nelson Mandela.

However, Mandela reportedly didn’t like the focus on himself, and wanted to be the last political prisoner released.

He was finally freed, on 11 Feb 1990. His face as a young man in his 40s had become iconic, that had been our last sight of him. His older face, then over 70 after emerging from prison, was also to become iconic.

Particularly for his smile, … and also perhaps for the flamboyant shirts which no other world leader could wear.

His attitude upon release was genuine in its forgiveness. There is a famous quote on this:

As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.

And another:

Resentment is like drinking poison and hoping it will kill your enemies

Remarkably, he did not disappoint in his transition from revolutionary to President. Very few manage that transition while retaining global and national respect and admiration.

It’s easy now to forget the horrors of apartheid, and also how dangerous South Africa’s transition looked in the early 1990s. There was much violence – in townships, between the ANC and the Zulu Inkatha party, between the people, security forces, the harder line white supremacists. There were assassinations of high profile leaders like Chris Hani. Apartheid was doomed, but a bloodbath looked like the inevitable replacement.

But Mandela’s moral authority and persistence ultimately won out over hardliners. And that facilitation of a peaceful transition was his greatest achievement. It is doubtful that anybody else could have achieved it.

He shared the Nobel peace prize with F.W. DeKlerk in 1993. South Africa conducted its first democratic elections in 1994, where Mandela was elected its first black President. He served one term and retired in 1999.

Mandela’s presidency was a time of reconciliation and healing, epitomised, for example, by his lunch with the Chief Prosecutor from his trial, a man who had argued that he should be hanged. And also his public embrace in the 1995 Rugby World Cup of that hated symbol of apartheid, the Springboks.

He instituted a Truth and Reconciliation Commission rather than widespread retribution and criminal prosecution. For hard-line purists that may seem like an unfortunate compromise. But Mandela’s response was telling:

Courageous people do not fear forgiving, for the sake of peace.

John Mahama, the President of Ghana, confirmed this week that Mandela’s spirit of reconciliation influenced much of Africa; it was no coincidence that other African States also embraced democracy and the rule of law in the 1990s.

In 1996, South Africa adopted one of the world’s most progressive Constitutions. It protected civil and political rights as well as, unusually for that time, economic social and cultural rights. Its case law on the latter is groundbreaking.

Whereas the basic right to vote was the right for which Mandela fought for most of his life, the greater challenge for South Africa now is probably in the area of economic social and cultural rights, inequality and poverty.

Mandela spent his years following his Presidency promoting these issues, including the fight against HIV AIDS, which was to claim one of his sons.

One of his later quotes, from 2005:

Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice. Like Slavery and Apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings. Sometimes it falls on a generation to be great. YOU can be that great generation. Let your greatness blossom.

One criticism perhaps is that he surrendered the Presidency too soon. Perhaps South Africa needed his moral authority for a bit longer, to continue to take the steps needed to addressing its robust challenges, particularly in the economic sphere. Then again, it is hard to begrudge a man of 80 his retirement.

Madiba died last week at the age of 95. And, as he did on the day he left prison and on the day he became President, he united the world. Where else, for example, does one see the US President shake the hand of the Cuban president?

But the best thing about the scenes in this last week from South Africa have been the smiles, the music, and the dancing. For while it is a time to grieve the passing of a great man, it is also the time to celebrate a truly great life.

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