Today the world says farewell, pays its last respects to a man who rose above adversity; a man who transcended politics, who embedded in the global imagination the possibility that we can move forward as a human race, that life can be better, that we can as human beings not only be as good as we possibly can be, but better.
I’m not an authority on global politics; I can’t give you a summation of his statecraft. I’m not an expert on African history; I can’t place him in the development of his nation, or of his continent. Doubtless, there will be further outpouring of text about the man who led resistance against the apartheid regime in South Africa – much of it from better qualified, more skillful commentators than I.
All I can do is lshare what he and his example have meant in my life. As a teenager in Yell, race relations was a distant, largely abstract concept. In South Africa, it was anything but. It was altogether concrete.
I was born in 1976. My earliest political memories are of the 1980s. Margaret Thatcher was tying the hands of trade unions in Britain – an expedient measure for her dismantling of public ownership, and of the industrial base to Great Britain’s economy. The USA and the USSR were amassing insane stockpiles of nuclear weaponry, enough to destroy the planet many times over, and I lived in perpetual anxiety over mutually assured destruction. With the RAF SaxaVord early warning system and Sullom Voe Oil Terminal both within fifty miles, we would be wiped out pretty early in a Soviet attack.
And in South Africa, the vast majority of the population were second class citizens due to the colour of their skin. I could not believe such a state of affairs was not only existed in the twentieth century, but was supported and perpetuated by a supposedly educated white population.
Mandela’s captivity became a focal point in the debate. The song ‘Free Nelson Mandela‘ was an anthem in the west, an emblem of solidarity with ordinary human beings living through extraordinary adversity. The public debate around Mandela’s release received more and more international attention, conducted with one voice notable by it’s absence – his own.
Characteristically, Mandela used this attention not to his own benefit, but to the benefit of his own people. Conditional offer after conditional offer was refused, until the regime had no option other than to release him without condition.
In so doing, they effectively signed their power away. And so, on the 11th of February 1990, 5 months before my 14th birthday, I sat by the fire with a global television audience and watched history happen.
That moment has stayed with me. I saw in it that change could happen. I saw in it that being true to your principles, and suffering for them, was not only ‘right’ in an abstract moral sense, but could yield results – real, positive, concrete results for the people around you. I learnt that the reactionary, conservative forces which rule the world didn’t always win; that if you refused them their way, they could be forced to yield. I learnt a lot about grace, about dignity, and a little bit about what greatness looks like.
His achievements since that day not only lived up to the promise of that moment, but exceeded even the highest expectations, as he negotiated his country to peace; his leadership and his example showed that even the deepest of wounds could heal – not with ‘time’, but with commitment to truthfulness, to forgiveness and to recognising and respecting people’s humanity.
The lessons I began to learn on that day are easily unlearnt by pressures, by ambitions, distractons. I’m certain the thirteen year old boy who witnessed history being made that day would exact some valid criticism at the thirty seven year old father of two.
But both retain the deepest admiration for the man who showed us how we could be. He will be laid to rest today, but his example will not be forgotten. And I know I won’t be the only one who tries to keep that example alive. Nor the only one who strives to honour his memory, with even a shadow of what we’ve learnt. From his integrity. From his dignity. From his grace.