Thursday, December 12, 2013

Tribute to Nelson Mandela

To understand Nelson Mandela’s impact I think it is important to realise just how much he helped white South Africans  –  for most of their lives fed a diet of racism and “swart gevaar” – to discover that black people were just like them, with the same claims to human dignity and respect.

I experienced a small but powerfully symbolic example of that impact while on a runway waiting to take off on a flight between Dublin and London a few months after Madiba’s release from jail on February 11 1990. Nelson Mandela was on that plane, too.

A child of apartheid, I had been raised to oppose it through the only non-violent means at the disposal of a teenager at the time: the opposition Progressive Party. Its sole MP in parliament for 13 years, Helen Suzman, one of this country’s most underrated anti-apartheid campaigners, had courageously tackled prime ministers Verwoerd, Vorster and then the all-powerful PW Botha, exposing as much as possible through probing questions in parliament the moral, political and economic crime of apartheid.

It was Suzman, a small woman with a powerful voice, who would – under the surveillance of the security police – visit Winnie Mandela in exile in Brandfort, helping expose her plight to the world at a time when the National Party government hoped she’d be forgotten. It was also Suzman who took up the plight of Nelson Mandela and his comrades on Robben Island, demanding that she be given access to them in order to establish that they were alright. She knew instinctively, as so many of us young whites who revered her did, that it was Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Raymond Mhlaba and so many other wise, courageous men trapped on Robben Island, who held the key to our future.

But as the seventies came and went, we saw Steve Biko martyred in 1977 after the massacres that occurred during the June 1976 Soweto uprising. Biko was but one of many black and a few white anti-apartheid activists who paid the supreme price for their convictions and courage.

Revolt and repression. That was the pattern for the next decade, the 1980s, as the banned ANC took on a new guise as the United Democratic Front, whose policy was simple: UDF Unites, Apartheid Divides. Alongside the trade union movement Cosatu and various civic organisations and churches, not to mention the global anti-apartheid movement and a growing disinvestment and sanctions campaign, as the 1980s wore on the apartheid state was on the retreat.

In late 1989, with FW de Klerk having replaced the ailing PW Botha as leader of the National Party and president of SA, there was a gradual relaxation of restrictions on protest marches and other acts of anti-apartheid activism imposed during successive states of emergency. Thousands had been detained under those regulations, but at the same time the likes of the aged Govan Mbeki had been released in Port Elizabeth 1987, signalling, along with the tentative talks initiated as a result of growing consumer boycotts of white-owned businesses, that the logjam was starting to break. Liberal whites like Van Zyl Slabbert had also initiated contact abroad with the ANC in exile.

I had reported on this incredible story for the Evening Post alongside veteran journalist Jimmy Matyu. The Post was arguably the most anti-government “mainstream” newspaper in the country, particularly after the sad demise of the Rand Daily Mail. It sold most of its copies in the townships of Port Elizabeth and Uitenhage, for generations the very heart of the anti-apartheid movement in this country. But I was also still at the beck and call of the SA Defence Force. Having refused to carry a rifle in the mid-1980s when the SADF was deployed in the townships, I lived a life on tenterhooks, expecting at every turn to be jailed for my stand. Instead, miraculously, the Citizen Force commandant at the unit where I was based for my “camps” took no action against me, instead placing me in headquarters company where I did sign-writing and other innocuous  stuff.

So when I was selected to represent the SA Morning Group of newspapers as their London correspondent, starting in early January 1990, I was delighted to escape the army’s clutches and to get the opportunity to report on the anti-apartheid struggle abroad, as the country remained on a knife-edge and the focus of the world’s attention.

Of course I wasn’t to know that on February 2 of 1990, De Klerk would unban the ANC and a week or so later free Mandela, although in late 1989 he had already freed other Rivonia triallists, including Walter Sisulu, all of whom had vowed to continue the armed struggle until the downfall of apartheid.

Soon after Mandela’s release, he embarked on a global tour of those countries which had offered strong support to the ANC during his many decades in jail and while it was banned in South Africa. Part of that journey took him to the Republic of Ireland, where Professor Kader Asmal, then in exile and lecturing at Dublin’s Trinity College, was a leading campaigner in the anti-apartheid movement.

I flew over to Dublin for Madiba’s address to the Dail, the Irish parliament, in early July 1990. Madiba thanked the people of Ireland for their unwavering support, quoting some of their great poets in identifying their affinity for the oppressed people of South Africa with their own long struggle for freedom from British subjugation.

Unfortunately, such was the security around Madiba at the time – there had been several attacks on exiled ANC leaders in Europe in the 1980s – there was no way I or any other of the horde of hacks covering the event were going to get anywhere near him. But it was an honour to have seen the man live and witnessed the reverence in which he was held by people who, like me, were finally seeing the myth of decades become a man. And what a man: grace, dignity, generosity of spirit. In fact, all the attributes diametrically in contrast with the picture the National Party had painted of him in their propaganda down the decades: a heartless, ruthless terrorist bent on driving whites into the sea  and imposing a communist state. Instead, the world galvanised its support for a man who saw not race, but humanity, as the most important factor, and who celebrated it in all its manifestations.

So what about that moment on the plane?

Well first you must remember that Mandela was acutely aware of British politics. Indeed, after his Ireland visit he was scheduled to visit the UK, where Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had long held out against recognising the legitimacy of the ANC. To most right-wing Conservatives, it remained a terrorist organisation. So on his arrival in Ireland, Mandela had already set the cat among the pigeons when he told journalists that in order to end the troubles and violence in Northern Ireland, the British government should do what FW de Klerk had committed himself to doing: speak to the  “terrorists”. I recall the outcry in sections of the British media at his suggestion that Thatcher’s government sit around a table with the leaders of Sinn Fein, political wing of the Irish Republican Army, and thrash out a negotiated settlement. Ever the stirrer was Madiba. But he did it with such charm and lack of malice that he soon had people eating out of his hand. It is no coincidence, I believe, that the example Mandela and De Klerk set in South Africa made it possible, a few years later, for the British government to indeed engage in its own negotiations with Sinn Fein for a settlement of the Northern Ireland crisis, which, while not perfect, at least started to heal the deep wounds brought about by centuries of oppression of the Catholic minority and ongoing internecine sectarian violence.

So, with the enormous problems of reconciling centuries-old antagonisms at home in South Africa no doubt weighing heavily on his mind, Madiba remained concerned for other countries’ challenges as well.

What would be the response of the ordinary people of the UK and Ireland to this radical pacifist, by this stage already 72 years old and no doubt suffering the physical effects of those many decades of incarceration? Would they want him poking his nose in their affairs?

I think the extent to which ordinary people reacted to Madiba’s innate belief in the universal humanity of us all, no matter our colour, religion or station in life, was reflected in that small, symbolic moment on a jet aircraft as it taxied along the runway at Dublin Airport.

As we prepared for takeoff, the pilot made an announcement. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he said. “We’d like to welcome on board Mr Nelson Mandela and his wife, Winnie.”

I was among those in the economy-class seats near the back, while Madiba had obviously been placed up front in business class. So we had not seen him enter the plane. However, the response of the passengers was immediate and spontaneous.

There was a sustained period of applause.