Thursday, 19 December 2013

Mandela - Tribute

I was a school boy in South Africa when Nelson Mandela and others were convicted of acts of sabotage.

 The ANC, under Mandela, had resolved to switch from a campaign of non-violence in the face of the intransigence of the Apartheid Regime.   I recall power line pylons being blown up and on one occasion heard that a man had been shot whilst attempting to deposit bags of poison on the reservoir feeding Durban, my home town.

 I also clearly remember the bombing at Johannesburg Central Station, attributed to the African Resistance movement, not to the ANC itself: that bomb, placed by John Harris, killed a 77 year old woman and injured others. The event shocked South Africa and even as a child I had become aware of an often unspoken but palpable public fear as a backdrop to life. Harris was sentenced to hang and was executed in in 1965.

That background of fear in those days in South Africa, a fear that a mass uprising would lead to widespread bloodshed, led to the Apartheid Regime being kept in power by the white only electorate.

 It was as if there were two nations living in the same space but almost completely out of touch with each other, in different worlds.  I don’t doubt that if I’d been born a black South African, I’d have joined the ANC, and would have wanted to rebel. Years later, serving in Northern Ireland, I saw parallels in the Catholic Protestant divide.  These are divisions we still see across the world today – making the change and reconciliation in South Africa all the more remarkable.

Nelson Mandela had embarked on a change from a campaign of non-violence to one of an armed struggled. That led to his arrest and conviction.  One can only guess at how far that armed struggle would have gone, under his power and influence.

Mandela being sentenced to imprisonment on Robben Island surely curtailed ANC violence, and, ironically the 27 years there profoundly influenced Mandela. When he was released, he was a man of peace. 

I visited South Africa the year before the first proper elections: the white population was still in fear – people barricaded their homes at night, avoided sleeping near windows, some even doing so in internal corridors.
But as I travelled about, speaking to all races, I sensed nothing but goodwill within each race. I felt that no one had bad intent though almost all still feared that others did.  Everyone held back and voted in hope. Mandela’s magic worked; the elections were a huge peaceful success.
Robben Island was the making of Mandela, and Mandela was the making of new South Africa, now a free sovereign nation. Living up to his legacy is now South Africa’s greatest goal and its next mountain.