Dermot Bolger: So privileged to have the heroic architect of change in our midst‘
Father of South Africa’ was locked away for 27 years... his spirit kept hope alive
WE live in an era when the camera is omnipresent. It is a constant presence not just in the lives of politicians and stars who live in the spotlight but it records so much of the backdrop of our lives that whenever anyone disappears the police can quickly release final pictures of them taken by one of the thousands of security cameras that record our daily lives.
Occasionally the onset of illness means that a familiar faces ages rapidly before our eyes, but most world figures age slowly in pictures — month by month — so that we unconsciously adjust to how they enter into different phases of their lives.
Numerous qualities made Nelson Mandela a truly epic and almost mythic figure. In an era when most politicians lack true conviction and moral authority, Mandela remained steadfast and resolute in his vision of how change would eventually occur in what was one of the most odious regimes on earth.
Here was a man who can be truly said to be an architect of regime change and a unifying father figure for a nation where it seemed that change could only come on a tide of bloodshed. What makes this all the more remarkable was that he achieved his life's ambition slowly and at huge personal cost while being hidden away.
In the age of the sound byte and photo-op, here was a man who for decades was ever present in our lives by the contradiction of having been rendered invisible by the apartheid regime. It meant that the only image we had of him dated from the 1960s when he was sentenced to life imprisonment and taken away to serve his time with hard labour on Robben Island. On many occasions during his 27 years in jail white South African leaders must have longed to go back and erase every image of him from that time and every defiant speech he made. Because — in the absence of fresh images — Mandela became locked into those famous photographs as a powerful, vigorous and courageous revolutionary whose words, as a prisoner in the dock, made greater and greater sense to the wider world.
If he could not speak to us in person, then his presence existed in even more powerful ways: in songs and slogans that become common in 1970s and 1980s Ireland.
The authorities might have thought him locked away on Robben Island, but he was present in songs like Dolores Keane's subliminal A Lion in a Cage, which made a new generation of music lovers aware of him. His spirit lived in working class suburbs where, walking at night, I sometimes saw the words ‘FREE NELSON MANDELA’ scrawled on walls.
He was present, too, in the voices of ordinary people who protested when the Irish Rugby Union showed that, at least in 1981, it had no interesting in representing the Irish nation but merely one privileged social caste within it by embarking on a contentious tour of South Africa while Mandela still languished on Robben Island.
I felt his presence one day in Greene's Bookshop when I saw a man buy a Hal Roche joke book, simply to tear it up because its cover contained the bizarre boast that Roche had been called “the cleanest comedian” ever to play the luxurious South African resort of Sun City.
How could you be a clean comedian and collaborative with a fascist regime that locked up politicians like Mandela and tortured and denied basic human rights to his fellow black citizens?
Without those photographs of a forever young Nelson Mandela South Africa might just have been another foreign country. But his face, frozen in time, and the knowledge of his confinement made it personal for many Irish people.
If one man confined to breaking stones could make a difference, so could anyone. I don't know if Nelson Mandela inspired the 12 Dunnes Stores workers who, in the 1980s, took the courageous moral decision, at great personal cost, to spent two-and-a-half years on strike for refusing to collaborative with apartheid by handling South African goods. After his release he said those Irish women inspired him to carry on.
I remember that picket outside Dunnes Stores: some shoppers offering encouragement; others ridiculing the strikers because how could a few Dublin women change anything? But they did.
They didn't do it alone, any more than Nelson Mandela brought down apartheid on his own. Regime change occurred because of the equal suffering of other colleagues from 1960s show trails.
It came about through the deaths of famous black activists like Steve Biko, killed by police in 1977 and by the deaths of people whose names were not famous; the moral outrage of South Africans (some of them white) and by continual protests in cities across the world.
Therefore it felt like an intimate moment of revelation when — after 27 years — in 1990 the prison gates opened and that same man walked out, older and greyer, but unbent and unbowed. Finally the cliche was true: for once those who could endure the most were the victors.
That picture of him walking proudly and calmly to take his rightful place as the elected head of his nation is a deeply political one. But for those who remember a time when he was rendered invisible it was a deeply personal and miraculous moment.
We were privileged to have him in our midst, as a symbol of inspiration, for a further 23 years. The names of his prison guards are forgotten: his legacy will never be.