The death of Nelson Mandela will be greeted with sadness but it must also be taken as an opportunity to celebrate the achievements of one of the truly great individuals of the last hundred years. Mandela was, first and foremost, a revolutionary. There has been a tendency in recent years to portray him as a grandfatherly figure but Mandela was no saint, he was a fighter. He was also man with a great sense of humour and a mischevious streak who, once when George W. Bush asked him what he would like to drink replied, with a wry smile, “Cuban rum”! It must also not be forgotten that the USA, under Ronald Reagan, Britain, under Margret Thatcher, and Israel, were deeply suspicious of the left-wing ANC. Reagan vetoed anti-apartheid legislation in 1986. Thatcher, who had an inability to see the human side of any story, opposed sanctions as they flew in the face of free trade and she described the ANC as terrorists. Israel was instrumental in providing the expertise that allowed the apartheid regime to develop nuclear weapons.
A lawyer by training, Mandela first tried to use peaceful means through the African National Congress (ANC) to challenge the racist apartheid government. Initially Mandela favoured a black only solution to tackling the authorities but soon saw the importance of forming a united front with anyone who was willing to challenge the government whether they were black, white, communist, or Indian. When the racist National Party proved unwilling to alter its course, Mandela saw the necessity of using violence to overthrow the government. In 1961 he was involved in establishing the guerrilla group Umkhonto we Sizwe (“Spear of the Nation” or MK). MK was modelled on Cuban revolutionary groups and had a communist outlook. MK used sabotage tactics including bombing government infrastructure (such a telephone and transport links) in an attempt to exert pressure on the National Party. In 1962 Mandela travelled around Africa as the ANC’s representative. He met left-wing African leaders such as Nasser of Egypt, Bourguiba of Tunisia, Sékou Touré of Guinea, as well as Ethiopia’s Haile Selaisse. In 1962 Mandela was sentenced to five years imprisonment for leaving South Africa without permission and inciting strikes. The following year evidence was uncovered linking Mandela and others to MK and they were sentenced to life imprisonment. Mandela was to remain in prison until 1990.
Following Mandela’s release from prison he helped to engineer the end of the apartheid era with international support and the more moderate National Party leadership under F.W. de Klerk. After the ANC’s victory in the 1994 elections Mandela became South Africa’s first black President. Perhaps Mandela’s greatest presidential achievements were successfully preventing widespread revenge attacks on white South Africans. Given the history of twentieth century South Africa it would have been easy for a firebrand politician to stir up Rwandaesque ethnic attacks. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was also a great success and offers a potential path for conflict resolution in Northern Ireland and other areas grappling with post-conflict societies. It was Mandela’s intelligence, warmth, gentle charisma, and ability to see the humanity, even in his political opponents, that enabled him to successfully steer post-apartheid South Africa through it’s early years. Of course South Africa today still suffers from poverty, crime, the AIDs pandemic, corruption, and poor policing, but Mandela still offers a template for how a good person can improve a country for the better. Hopefully the scores of politicians, South African and international, that will pay to tribute to Mandela in the coming days will take on board his message and not merely try to bask in the light of Mandela’s many achievements.
From an Irish perspective the Irish people were generally opposed to the apartheid regime but we were slow to introduce comprehensive sanctions. It was the strike by Dunnes Stores workers in 1984, who refused to handle South African fruit and vegetables, that ultimately led to the Irish government agreeing to ban the importation of all South African fruit and vegetables. Mandela angered Thatcher by suggesting in 1990 that the British government should talk to the IRA to end the conflict in the North. He said, “I would like to see the British government and the IRA adopt precisely the line we have taken. There’s nothing better than opposites sitting down to resolve problems by peaceful means.” History has proven Mandela to be correct. In the 1980s Queens University Belfast Students’ Union named it’s main entertainment venue, “Mandela Hall”. Mandela was given the Freedom of the City of Dublin while still a prisoner in 1988. Following his release from prison he visited Ireland three times. Mandela’s most memorable visit to Ireland was when he opened the Special Olympics in front of over 80,000 people in Croke Park in 2003 but perhaps his most stirring comments on Irish history, past and future, were spoken to the Dáil in 1990,
The very fact that there is today an independent Irish State, however long it took to realise the noble goals of the Irish people by bringing it into being, confirms that we too shall become a free people; we too shall have a country which will, as the great Irish patriots said in the proclamation of 1916, cherish all the children of the nation equally.
The outstanding Irish poet, William Butler Yeats, has written that too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart. He spoke thus because he could feel within himself the pain of the suffering that Irish men and women of conscience had had to endure in centuries of struggle against an unrelenting tyranny. But then he also spoke of love, of the love of those whose warm hearts the oppressors sought to turn to stone, the love of their country and people, and, in the end the love of humanity itself.
For three quarters of a century, under the leadership of the ANC, our own people have themselves confronted a racist tyranny which grew more stubborn with each passing day. It had to be our lot that even as we refused to take up arms to save lives, we still had to bury many martyrs who were shot down or tortured to death simply because they dared to cry freedom.
The apartheid system has killed countless numbers, not only in our country but throughout Southern Africa. It has condemned to the gallows some of the best sons of our people. It has imprisoned some and driven others into exile. Even those whose only desire was to live, have had their lives cut short because apartheid means the systematic and conscious deprivation and impoverishment of the black millions.
It could have been that our own hearts turned to stone. It could have been that we inscribed vengeance on our banners of battle and resolved to meet brutality with brutality. But we understood that oppression dehumanises the oppressor as it hurts the oppressed. We understood that to emulate the barbarity of the tyrant would also transform us into savages. We knew that we would sully and degrade our cause if we allowed that it should, at any stage, borrow anything from the practices of the oppressor. We had to refuse that our long sacrifice should make a stone of our hearts.