Saturday 1 October 2016

Anne Flaherty: He showed that humanity could rise above the allure of hatred

Journalist Anne Flaherty recalls the healing influence Nelson Mandela had in the boiling cauldron that was South Africa under apartheid

Published 07/12/2013 | 02:30

Nelson Mandel in Cape Town, South Africa in 1997
Nelson Mandel in Cape Town, South Africa in 1997

When Nelson Mandela moved among them it suddenly seemed as if the horror of the previous days had evaporated. Here in Swanieville, a bleak squatter camp west of Johannesburg, there was something like hope in the air.

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On Sunday, 12 May 1991, a group of 1,000 Inkatha Freedom Party followers – a Zulu-dominated group opposed to the ANC – had attacked Swanieville, killing 28 people.

Nobody believed there would ever be any justice for the dead of Swanieville but Mandela's arrival a few days later was an act of solidarity that the victims would never forget.

In Swanieville the ANC leader delivered his angriest speech since being released from prison the previous year, not only blaming Inkatha, but the South African government and the security forces for actively promoting violence against the ANC.

But this was a Mandela who was angry and impatient, a man who had listened to government promises of action to end the violence but seen only failure and, in some instances, state complicity.

At the height of the political tension it was hard to imagine a South Africa at peace, much less a country where democratic elections would be possible.

But almost three years to the day after Swanieville I stood and watched Mandela in Pretoria, being sworn in as president of a multi-racial cabinet.

People often wonder what Mandela was like – in public life I always saw him being courteous and kind. He had an extraordinary presence and charisma but he did not appear arrogant. I recall his dignity, despite his personal sadness, in 1992 when he officially announced his separation from Winnie Mandela.

A boy pauses at a shrine outside the home of former South African President Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg December 6, 2013.
A boy pauses at a shrine outside the home of former South African President Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg December 6, 2013.

The life he had chosen, his devotion to the liberation struggle came at a high personal price. At his daughter Zindzi's wedding, Mandela spoke of his regret at missing out on early family life with his daughters

Wherever he went he was unfailingly kind to his people. It was this connection with the poor and the downtrodden, the South African majority, that gave him his extraordinary moral authority. They knew he had given the best years of his life for them.

On several occasions he could have been freed from prison if he had accepted the regime's terms to be silent, stay out of politics, hide himself away in a rural area. But as he wrote himself back in 1986: "My freedom and your freedom cannot be separated." It was also fascinating to watch how he gradually won the hearts of many white South Africans.

On the morning when Chris Hani, the ANC's revered military leader, was gunned down by a white extremist, the entire country held its breath. Would black South Africa seek bloody vengeance? It might have torn the country apart. But Mandela took to the airwaves.

In the most important address of his career he told blacks and whites that he was reaching out to every single South African from the very depths of his being. Calling it a watershed moment, he told them to remember they had a shared future. All of us living there then, all who cared about the country, breathed a sigh of relief. Mandela showed that humanity could rise above the temptations of hatred.

For this above all, not only millions of South Africans but people all over the world, will cherish his memory.

Irish Independent

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