There was only one Nelson Mandela

Amid the massive outpouring of tributes to Nelson Mandela this week, there was a dissonant note in a church in the northern Sydney suburb of Roseville.
The dissonance came from the Rev Corrie Nel of the Roseville Presbyterian Church, delivering a sermon to a sparse congregation last Sunday. I hasten to add I wasn’t there, but saw the minister on the ABC News in Sydney. Reverend Nel said Nelson Mandela was loving and caring in his later life, but “he was a convicted terrorist,” adding that side of the story was seldom told.
Well, Reverend Nel (who also happens to be South African), to set the record straight, that part of the story was told by Nelson Mandela in his excellent autobiography, The Long Walk to Freedom, where he recounted the proceedings in the Rivonia Trial where he and members of Umkhonto we Sizwe (The Spear of the Nation) were charged with sabotage. Mandela wrote: “… we had made it clear that we intended to use the trial not as a test of the law but as a platform for our beliefs. We would not deny that a group of us had turned away from non-violence. We were not concerned with getting off or lessening our punishment, but with making the trial strengthen the cause for which we were all struggling – at whatever cost to ourselves.”
Six months after the trial began, Nelson Mandela addressed the court in an eloquent four-hour statement from the dock in which he explained the ANC had planned sabotage as a “result of a calm and sober assessment of the political situation that had arisen after many years of tyranny, exploitation, and oppression of my people by whites.” Then he turned to face the judge and say the final words of his speech: “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 idea 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.”
The judge, Quartus de Wet, passed his sentence of life imprisonment on Nelson Mandela and his fellow defendants on June 12, 1964, and the South African leader explained it this way: “He was a white Afrikaner, a creature of the South African system and mind-set. He had no inclination to go against the belief system that formed him. He had succumbed to these pressures by sentencing us to life and resisted them by not giving us death.” By not sentencing them to death, Justice de Wet allowed Nelson Mandela to become a hero and father of South Africa, surviving 27 years in prison before his long walk to freedom finally came to an end. In his tribute at the memorial service in Soweto this week, President Barack Obama said Nelson Mandela was “the last great liberator of the 20th century” and a man that led “a life like no other,” adding: “I will always fall short… but he makes me want to be a better man. He speaks to what is best inside of us.”
I think most of the world leaders, dignitaries and ordinary South Africans, who attended the service, and the millions around the globe, who watched it, would agree with Barack Obama. Like the President, I discovered more about the story of Nelson Mandela and apartheid in my early thirties when I was the foreign editor of The Australian. The South African embassy in Canberra offered a trip sponsored by Information Minister Connie Mulder in Pretoria a year after the Soweto uprising in June 1976. (I’ve written about this in a previous blog post: ) Little did I know that the trip was probably part of a slush fund organised by Mulder to wage a propaganda campaign for the Vorster government. The Australian paid for flights and hotels in South Africa and I didn’t write a kind word – because the apartheid regime deserved none — about the government until 1990 when Nelson Mandela was released from prison. Highlights of my visit (featured in a series of articles in The Australian) included an interview with the author Alan Paton (Cry, the Beloved Country) in his beautiful home in the hills outside Durban, and being smuggled into a migrant workers’ dormitory, a dark and dingy concrete crypt-like building in the black township of Guguletu outside Cape Town, where one of the workers told me he was forced to live in horrible conditions as a single man, even though he was married. The evils of apartheid were hammered home to me on that trip. The South African embassy was not happy with my reports and the press information officer was sacked. Mark Day, then editor of The Australian, described my visit as “one of Muldergate’s biggest failures.” (The Muldergate story broke in November 1977.)
So getting a chance to go back to South Africa in February 1994 to produce a cover story on Bryce Courtenay for the Channel Nine Sunday Program was one of the best things that ever happened to me. Bryce returned to the country of his birth to visit his mother and sister in KwaZulu-Natal, 270km north of Durban, see what things were like in Barberton where he went to primary school, speak to a senior class at the Johannesburg high school which he wrote about in his novel, Power of One, talk to students at Morris Isaacson High where the 1976 Soweto riots erupted and interview a leader of one of the Cape Coloured gangs, to name just a few of his assignments. Bryce revealed real insights into a country that was seemingly on the brink. Two months later, on April 27, 1994, the day of the first multi-racial elections in South Africa, it was another country. I was there producing a feature story for Sunday with Jim Waley and a Nine crew (including the excellent editor Mike Fleming and cameraman Ben Hanson), and a bomb exploded in Johannesburg on our way from the airport to the hotel, killing 9 people. The tension disappeared on Wednesday as millions of black Africans were allowed to vote for the first time. The Star newspaper in Johannesburg had this splash headline: “Vote, the beloved country,” with the first sentence: “Apartheid died today.” And Nelson Mandela is quoted: “Today marks the dawn of our freedom.”
Nelson Mandela’s one-term presidency and his continuing presence in South Africa, even during his long illness, has kept the country from exploding into violence. Madiba was a master of reconciliation, refusing to let his long years of imprisonment turn him into a bitter man. But now that he’s gone, with unemployment among black South Africans at 25 per cent and rising, President Jacob Zuma must face elections early next year. He has survived corruption charges, and a newspaper investigation into security upgrades to his home, including construction of a pool, an outdoor amphitheatre and a cattle enclosure. It’s no wonder he was booed when he walked up the steps at the Soccer City Stadium to give his keynote speech, paying tribute to the man who kept him in power, simply by staying alive.
One of Australia’s most respected authorities on race relations, Indigenous Australia, genocide, and anti-Semitism, Professor Colin Tatz, was born to a Jewish family in South Africa and left there for Australia on the last day of 1960. In an article in today’s The Australian Jewish News, Professor Tatz, visiting fellow in Politics and International Relations at the ANU, describes Mandela as the Christ figure of the 20th Century: “He reached out and embraced his enemies, forgiving them, de-clawing their animus, their racial hatred and, significantly, offering them a different interpretation of their angry, vengeful Dutch Reformed Church fundamentalism, the one that said Blacks could never achieve true spirituality with the White man … What South Africa now trembles at is the prospect that there is no one in sight with such courage, endurance, vision, humanity, and humane spirit.”
What South Africa, indeed the world, needs now are more Nelson Mandelas; alas, there was only one.

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