I, like countless millions of others, am today mourning the death and celebrating the life of Nelson Mandela. Madiba has great personal meaning for me and has been a profound influence on my life. It was through the anti apartheid movement in the 1980s when I first became politicised, immersing myself in South African politics and learning about the struggle for a free society. I spent many a day on protest marches and the 24-hour picket of the South African embassy.
‘We will be here till Mandela’s free, on a non-stop picket of the Embassy’ we sang over and over again…and so it proved to be.
The anti apartheid movement showed me the power and the horrors of collective political action. The ridiculous rows over who was a Trotskyite and who was a Marxist was symptomatic of the worst aspects of identity politics that bedevilled social justice campaigns for a decade. The frequent splits and counter splits were reminiscent of Monty Python’s ‘People’s Front of Judea’ in Life of Brian. I learnt a lot from those years of activism, in particular that we may have differences, but we are far stronger when we put them aside and focus on what unites us.
That was something Mandela clearly showed when we became President of the new South Africa. Much has been said about the reconciliation role he played in uniting Blacks and Whites in a post-apartheid democracy. Far less attention is given to the reconciliation among warring factions among Black South Africans at the same time. When Mandela was released from prison, the situation was extremely volatile and outbreaks of violence between political and ethnic groups was common. Extremists like Eugene Terrablanche, head of the right wing AWB party, were ready to capture the votes of disaffected whites and there was huge tension between the ANC’s supporters and those of the Zulu leader Chief Buthelez, whom they accused of conspiring with the Afrikaners. Mandela did not just unite whites and blacks, his forgiveness and reconciliation doused flames on the tinderbox of much broader tensions.
Mandela was quick to forgive those who had opposed the introduction of sanctions and supported the apartheid regime, including many Western leaders including our own Margaret Thatcher. He graciously accepted the apologies of David Cameron on behalf of his Party, meeting him before and after he became Prime Minister. Last night, as the TV screens were filled with aging politicians who had been complicit in propping up apartheid, I grew crosser and crosser. It was, rightly, pointed out to me that Mandela had it in his heart to forgive these people and would I not do the same. I am no Madiba, but I did take the point.
However, whilst I believe we should all learn from Mandela’s ability to forgive, we must not confuse this with forgetting what happened. Far too often genocide and discrimination across the globe can be airbrushed out of history. We must not ever allow that to happen. Nor must we forget that there were many who did not stand up against the segregation and discrimination of the majority of South Africans – whether in their own countries, or in Africa. We must follow Mandela’s example in seeking a balance between remembering and forgiving the events of the past.
I never had the opportunity to meet Nelson Mandela, but I did have the privilege to meet his good friend Archbishop Desmond Tutu a few years ago. I told him how I had spent time on the picket of the South African embassy opposing apartheid and I will never forget his response. As his eyes sparkled, betraying his age showing remarkably youthful exuberance, he said simply ‘you see what we did’. In bringing me and my microscopic contribution in to the same realm as him and the other giants of the anti apartheid movement, he displayed the most incredible generosity. In this simple act, he focused on what unites us, not on the gulf that lay between us in the contribution we had made. It is something I will forever remember and try to learn from throughout my life.