Yesterday I joined parliamentary members in expressing sadness over the passing of the former South African President, Nelson Rolihlahla Nelson. I gave this condolence speech:
Richard Stengel, who worked with Nelson Mandela on his autobiography, told the story of when he was out walking one morning in the Transkei with Mr Mandela and they spoke about when he would be joining his ancestors. Mandela said:
Men come and go. I have come and I will go when my time comes.
He had an extraordinary life. The first time he shook the hand of a white man was when he went off to boarding school. He was born into a relatively privileged family by black South African standards. He grew to stand six foot two and he had a strong education. Nonetheless, when he was a young man in Johannesburg people spat on him in buses, shopkeepers turned him away and whites treated him as if he could not read or write. He thought to himself that, if that was how he was treated, how must it be for so many other black South Africans?
He was tried for his revolutionary activities for the ANC and sentenced. In the sentencing hearings, he spoke for four hours, finishing with the final statement:
During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. 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 and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.
His defence team urged him to take out the last sentence for risk of antagonising the judge and, as history has suggested, it may have been a close-run thing. Another member of the Johannesburg bench claims that he persuaded the trial judge, Quartus de Wet, to change his mind over a cup of tea in the judicial common room just before he returned to the court for sentencing: de Wet had been set on hanging.
The 27-year sentence saw Nelson Mandela become prisoner 466/64. He was held for 18 years in an eight-foot by seven-foot cell. It was a brutal sentence. He was a man who loved children but spent 27 years without holding a baby. As was reported, when he was being pursued by thousands of police, he secretly went to tuck in his son in his bed. When his son asked why he could not be with him every night, Mandela told him millions of other South African children needed him too. He lost his eldest son, Madiba Thembekile, in a car crash in 1969 and felt terrible guilt.
Mandela did not eschew violence entirely, as Gandhi did. He said, 'At a certain point, one can only fight fire with fire.' He never disowned the struggle and he was the founder of Umkhonto weSizwe, the Spear of the Nation, the military wing of the ANC. He regarded violence as a tactic not as a principle. As my media adviser, Toni Hassan, has pointed out, Mandela reached a point of taking the view that violence was a necessary strategy. But when the time came, he said to the ANC:
We must accept that responsibility for ending violence is not just the government's, the police's, the army's. It is also our responsibility.
This was most difficult when Chris Hani was killed by an assassin commissioned by the right-wing conservative party. It was Mandela who called aggrieved black South Africans not to take revenge when the country could have been plunged into bloodshed. He noted that a white woman of Afrikaner origin risked her life so that 'we may know and bring justice to the assassin'.
When Mandela was released from jail, almost a generation had passed. It was said that when he saw a television soundman waving a boom microphone at him he thought he was 'wielding a fancy assassination device'. But Mandela brought black and white South Africa together as the first president of a multiracial South Africa. In the moment when the country hosted the 1995 Rugby World Cup, Mandela wore captain Francois Pienaar's No. 6 jersey on the field. The crowd loved it and loved him. They experienced a great moment of unity.
I am very pleased to see the bipartisanship with which Nelson Mandela has been acknowledged, but it is important to note that this was not always so. When people like Meredith Burgmann protested against white-only South African sporting teams, she was attacked by many Australian conservatives. Reading through the Hansard reveals John Howard opposing sporting sanctions against South Africa in the 1980s and Michael Cobb calling in 1990 for the resumption of sporting contact with South Africa. It also reveals Liberal members calling for the expulsion of the African National Congress from Australia and people like Senator Crichton-Browne saying:
When Mandela gets out of gaol he will be just in the ruck with all the rest. As long as he is in gaol he really is a symbol of all that the blacks represent. The sooner he gets out, the sooner, in my view, his influence will be considerably diminished.
One is so glad that those words have been consigned to the dustbin of history. There was a great moment in that speech when Senator Crichton-Browne said:
No one, in my view, has an absolute mortgage on morality.
And the late John Button said:
Certainly not you, Senator.
Mandela was a towering figure the likes of which we may not see again. His example to all of us was an extraordinary one. We are lucky to have shared this planet with him for that great run of 95 years he was on it. May he rest in peace.
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