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Liz O'Donnell: Change that comes through dignity – his legacy to world


With John Hume in 2000

With John Hume in 2000

Nelson Mandela with wife Winnie in 1963 just before he was sentenced to life

Nelson Mandela with wife Winnie in 1963 just before he was sentenced to life


With John Hume in 2000

SO finally the beloved Nelson Mandela has passed. The eyes of the South African nation have been watching heaven for some months as his hospital stays became more frequent. The last sighting of him offended many at home and abroad, televised as it was with flashing lights making the poor man blink in discomfort. He looked dazed and uncommunicative. It was not repeated.

One cannot blame the media. Nelson Mandela was the closest thing to a living saint; revered the world over for his personal courage and political integrity. His every move was world news. He was living history.

Madiba, his tribal name in South Africa, was the consummate leader of his people from struggle and apartheid to a free nation. On a continent which has had its share of despotic leaders and poor governance, he stood tall. Born into an elite tribe, he received an education and at a young age became politicised by the struggle for freedom and civil rights and an end to the system of apartheid.

He rose quickly up the ranks of the African National Congress. But this political activity soon brought him into conflict with the law and he was banned and jailed for 27 years.

His courage and dignity while a prisoner was so powerful that in the end the minority white government had to accept the terms of his release, not the other way round.

Mandela was president of the new Republic of South Africa for five years from 1994 to 1999. He did not disappoint. He dazzled the world with his charm, humility and his capacity for reconciliation. The new post-apartheid government faced enormous economic and social challenges. Clean water and housing were priorities.

He appointed our own Kader Asmal, as Minister for Water. By 1998 they had delivered clean water to nearly five million people and were building 500 houses a day. Still it was not enough to meet the unmet needs of the poorest people.

Asmal went on to serve as minister for education in a second term and was a leading member of the ANC leadership until his death in 2011. He had been my tutor in Trinity. Neither of us could have imagined our paths would cross with me as an Irish minister visiting the new South Africa in 1998 for St Patrick's Day.

It was a time of firsts. While there, he treated me to a cricket match in the searing heat. There was a black cricketer on the national team for the first time. Kader wept as he sat beside me in the stand.

For a while, the peace was fragile; the transition from white power to black power was precarious. There was a fear of a flight of white capital. There was a dread of racial violence, of vengeance and unsettled scores. Mandela was an instrument of peace and reconciliation.

Nelson Mandela had true courage; Ernest Hemingway defined it as "grace under fire". In 1995 South Africa's rugby team won the World Cup. President Mandela strode on to the pitch after the game sporting the national team's jersey, once a symbol of white domination. There was only one black player in the Springbok line-up. It was a move of political genius and reconciliation.

But of all Mandela's virtues, perhaps the greatest was dignity. It defined him. In his autobiography, 'Long Walk to Freedom', he describes how he felt a day after his release from prison in responding to a question. He said: "I knew people expected me to harbour anger towards whites. But I had none. In prison my anger toward whites decreased, but my hatred for the system grew. I wanted South Africa to see that I loved even my enemies while I hated the system that turned us against one another."

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Mandela perfected a model of conflict resolution based on human dignity. That is perhaps his greatest legacy to the world.

Liz O'Donnell is a former junior minister at the Department of Foreign Affairs

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