Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela
18th July 1918 - 5th December 2013
Rest in Peace
Late on Thursday evening I began to see messages on Twitter that 'Madiba' had passed away so immediately switched to the BBC News channel and Sky News and was in time to watch President Jacob Zuma, the current President of South Africa, making his live statement confirming the sad news that Nelson Mandela had died about an hour earlier. As he had been very ill for some time the news of his death was of course not unexpected, even more so because of his advanced age, but still made me very sad.
Quite where South Africa would be today had Nelson Mandela never existed, or had he been executed as a result of his trial in the early 1960s on charges of inciting a violent revolution (which during a famous speech in testimony before the court he did not deign to deny), but in the event he was instead sentenced by Mr Justice Quartus De Wet to life imprisonment with hard labour, so that he spent the years from 1964 to 1990 behind bars, mainly on Robben Island (a little under 7 Km off the coast, just west of Cape Town), but subsequently at Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town and for the final 15 months at Victor Verster Prison near Paarl in the Western Cape until his release on 11th February 1990, this having been presaged in a speech to Parliament by former President F W de Klerk on 2nd February 1990 - listen to the audio here.
I have never visited South Africa so have no personal experiences of it to offer, although it has been in my consciousness since a very early age, probably from when I was about 8 years old, after what is now known as the Sharpeville Massacre in March 1960. Obviously I was too young to have formed any political views of my own by then, but I do recall that the general tenor of conversations about news events then and subsequently between my parents was that matters would "end in tears" - they explained to me a little about the apartheid system in South Africa with general tones of disapproval both at its injustice and its shortsightedness. My parents were certainly not 'ideological' on the issue, rather that they thought it was a system that could never last, specially given events going on elsewhere in Africa at the time with so many former British colonies having recently gained or being about to gain independence; certainly by the time of the dissolution of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland in 1963 and even more so when Rhodesia (formerly Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe) declared UDI in 1965, it was accepted in our household that the whole edifice of the 'white supremacy' policies of South Africa in particular and Rhodesia also were completely inequitable and would have to change sooner or later if bloody violence was to be avoided. In the event it took almost a further 40 years before South Africa moved to majority rule, with quite a lot of violence and economic dislocation in between, but without the descent into a bloody civil war that so many had gloomily predicted.
I think it is probably true to say that the fact this disaster was avoided owes a great deal to the influence of Nelson Mandela, helped by the growing realisation amongst the more forward-looking leaders of the then South African government, P W Botha and F W de Klerk, that the political and economic isolation of the country resulting from the sanctions imposed on it by much of the international community made their political system unsustainable in the longer term. Particularly in the period leading up to his release from prison and even more so in the months and years following his release, the moderating influence of Mandela in agreeing to work with the existing government to achieve an orderly transition to majority rule and his continuing efforts at reconciliation once he became President achieved general support amongst most communities in South Africa. Who knows how that country will develop in coming years now that his moral authority is no longer available, but it is to be hoped that his legacy can endure and be built upon in a positive way, for the sake of everyone in South Africa.
You can read a fuller obituary for Nelson Mandela in the Telegraphhere; there is also of course a full biography of Nelson Mandela in Wikipediahere. As I have a particular interest in rugby, I think it appropriate to include also a link to a tribute from Francois Pienaar, former captain of the Springboks when they won against New Zealand in the final of the Rugby World Cup in 1995, also this video tribute from the Springboks: