Building on Mandela’s legacy

The great liberator’s achievements must now be built on, writes Nuala O’Loan

It takes many factors to bring a man or a woman to the kind of global recognition that Nelson Mandela enjoyed.  For many he became the story of modern South Africa, a country which moved, in 20 short years, from an apartheid state to a free country in which the mourners at his passing came from all tribes, races and peoples in South Africa and across the world.

I was about 18 and had just left school in 1970 when I really became aware of the tragedy of South Africa.  Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country was an early introduction, and then at King’s College, London I marched with hundreds of others along the Strand to South Africa House.  We marched knowing that we could not go to South Africa, but very clear that we wanted to make our voices heard in condemnation of something which we recognised to be so very wrong. As the years passed South Africa became more isolated, cricket and rugby teams no longer played there, the South Africans were banned from the Olympics in 1964, a ban that lasted effectively until 1992. Economic sanctions were applied. South Africa became a modern pariah state – its way of life unacceptable to the modern world. 

Nelson Mandela spent his young years in a society in which a young black could not go to the same school as a young white, could not travel on the same buses, could not live in the same areas, could not shop in the same shops, could not stay in the same hotels, could not fall in love with and marry a white, Indian or coloured  person, could not be an equal in the presence of his fellow citizens. In 1970 blacks were deprived of their South African citizenship; there was no vote for blacks. There were no civil or human rights for blacks. This was apartheid – separation. People were defined by their race, ‘black’, ‘white’, ‘coloured’ and ‘Indian’.  Race defined their expectations and their possibilities.

Human rights

When one considers that virtually all the power was in the hands of the Afrikaner government, and that such education as was available mostly came through the generosity of people like Catholic nuns and priests, working in very difficult circumstances, in difficult territory, learning to speak tribal languages, it all seems not just strange, but almost impossible that one minority group could so abuse their power as to deprive a whole people of their basic human rights – rights which had been defined with absolute clarity in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights in 1948.

Of course South Africa was not the only place in which there was injustice.  Ireland, North and South, knew its injustices too. There was and is prejudice and discrimination in many societies across the world. The difference was that in South Africa it was absolute, and there was no remedy for her oppressed people.  When whites and Asians tried to help the black people of South Africa in their struggle for justice, they too were dealt with savagely and mercilessly by the government.

Terrible era

For the people of South Africa it was a terrible time, but during that terrible era there emerged a man of courage and constancy, a man who was able to survive undefeated all that the apartheid  regime did to him, and ultimately to lead his people to freedom. That man was Nelson Mandela.  There were other men and women of courage – from all the races of the world, many of whom worked closely with Mandela, including Desmond Tutu, who studied at King’s College London, just a few years before me, and who also became an iconic figure for the people of South Africa, working with Mandela to achieve peace and justice, in so far as that was possible.

Peaceful activism

The story of Mandela’s life is well known. He has never been portrayed as superhuman or as having only good qualities. He was human and he had his failings. He came from a royal family, and was well educated, yet he knew poverty and he was 30 when he finally went to university in 1948. He did not graduate. Rather he rapidly became involved with the ANC and for the rest of his life devoted his energies to the fight for freedom for the oppressed people of South Africa. He tried the armed struggle, seeking to destroy economic targets such as electricity stations but trying always to avoid any loss of life, but rapidly decided that peaceful activism was the way to freedom.  He was charged with treason twice, facing the death penalty, was convicted in 1964, and sentenced to life imprisonment. He spent 27 years in jail.

His dignified, constructive, respectful conduct whilst in prison has been well documented.  His emergence from jail in 1990, and the long progress towards majority rule in South Africa, his election as President, an office he held for one term only is the subject of a new film, Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom, which was being premiered in London when his death was announced.  He was able to work with his captors and the Afrikaner government in such a way that eventually F.W. de Klerk, the former Afrikaans president acknowledged and apologised for what had been done in the name of the party he served and led. “I apologise in my capacity as leader of the NP to the millions who suffered wrenching disruption of forced removals; who suffered the shame of being arrested for pass law offences; who over the decades suffered the indignities and humiliation of racial discrimination.

He was a truly great man.

Emerging debate

The enigma is that even as he lies awaiting a great state funeral, there is an emerging debate about what sort of man Mandela really was. There are those who talk of his humility, his respect for all, his empathy even for the Afrikaners, the oppressors of his people, of his warmth, his ability to engage with everyone from tiny children to the very old.  There are also those who speak of a man who continued to be angry about what had happened to the people, who was driven, whose children did not know him as a warm, gentle, benign man, but rather found him aloof and distant, preoccupied with his politics.

As I look now on the life of this man, who became the first black President of South Africa, I see a human being who not only lived almost a hundred years, struggling for dignity, respect, equality and justice for his people, but who must have paid a terrible personal price during those long years on the run, in jail, and even during the years after his release, when the world feared that South Africa would implode. It did not. The people found ways to deal with their past and to move on.  Coming from a situation in which black people were allowed nothing, it is not surprising that so much remains to be done almost 20 years after Mandela became president. 

No one man can do everything, but this man united and liberated his people. Their task now is to build a fair South Africa.