December 10, 2013

Today we celebrate the life - and mourn the passing - of Nelson Mandela. 

A man whose influence stretches well beyond the borders of his nation, South Africa, into the hearts and minds of every person who believes that this world can be better tomorrow than it is today. 

Mandela’s story of moral courage and immense personal sacrifice in the face of oppression is one that has inspired people across the globe. 

In perhaps his most famous speech, given at the start of 1964 during the so called Rivonia trial. 

The trial for which he was ultimately sentenced to life in prison. 

Mandela concluded his defence by remarking: 

“During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. 

I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. 

It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. 

But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die”. 

Those words stirred the conscience of many of my generation. 

Every person who cared about social change, social justice or social progress was moved. 

Indeed, many people on the progressive side of politics can attribute their political coming-of-age to Mandela’s heroic activism. 

Tragically, this would be the last speech the world would hear from Mandela for more than a quarter of a century. 

But during the 27 long years of his imprisonment, his battle never ceased. 

A battle that he waged, even behind bars, against injustice and tyranny and racism in its most overt form. 

And as he continued to stand against the brutal regime that ruled his nation, millions around the world stood with him. 

I am proud to be a part of the Australian Labor Party and the broader Australian Union movement, both of which played a role in opposing that regime. 

It was the Whitlam Government that banned racially selected sporting teams from touring Australia. 

It was Australian maritime unions that played a vital role by enforcing and organising sanctions against the Apartheid Government. 

During his visit to Australia in 1990, the ACTU hosted an event for Mandela at the Melbourne Town Hall during which he acknowledged and thanked the Australian union movement for the role it played in the liberation of South Africa from racial repression. 

Recounting the impact of the Australian union movement on the struggle in South Africa Mandela stated: 

“It was the labour movement of this country in the early-50s which supported the dockworkers.” 

A decision, which he said: “created a great deal of excitement, and gave the people of South Africa in their struggle, a lot of strength and a lot of hope. 

It was difficult to understand how workers, thousands of miles from our shores, who did take the initiative, the lead, among the workers of the world, to pledge their solidarity with the people of South Africa. 

The feeling that we are not alone, that we have millions of workers behind us, is a factor which has prepared us, notwithstanding the most brutal form of oppression which we've faced in our country.” 

That day at building sites in Melbourne’s CBD, the flag of the ANC flew proudly from cranes, symbolising the solidarity of the union movement with the struggle for a free and democratic South Africa. 

And it was the Australian unions that forged formal links with black African trade unions and directly with the ANC, assisting with funding the establishment of an ANC office in Sydney. 

Indeed the ACTU’s overseas aid organisation, Union Aid Abroad played a role in helping exiled members of the ANC return to South Africa during the transition to democracy. 

I acknowledge the work of Malcolm Fraser who during both his time as Prime Minister and in retirement was a strong advocate for sanctions against South Africa and for Mandela’s release from jail. 

I am proud of the Hawke Labor Government and the important role they played in leading international efforts to impose financial sanctions on the Apartheid regime. 

These financial sanctions played a pivotal role in isolating the South African Government during those crucial years in the late 1980s. 

Former South African Finance Minister, Barend du Plessis later went on to say the resulting fall in investment as a result of the sanctions was ‘the dagger that finally immobilised Apartheid’. 

In recent days many brilliant tributes have been made remembering Nelson Mandela. 

One of my favourites comes from John Carlin in which he recounts Mandela’s first day as President following his inauguration as the first black President of South Africa. 

Mandela came across an Afrikaner, John Reinder, Chief of Presidential Protocol during the tenure of both the last white President, FW de Klerk, and his predecessor, PW Botha. 

Reinder was packing up his belongings and placing them into cardboard boxes in his office when Mandela asked him what he was doing. 

Reinder responded that he was moving to another job at the prisons department. 

To this Mandela responded “I know that Department very well. I would not recommend doing that”. 

Mandela then went about persuading Reinder that he needed his expertise and ultimately convinced Reinder to serve in the role throughout his five-year Presidency. 

Carlin writes: Reinder’s eyes filled with tears as he recalled the story. 

During the five years he had served at Mandela's side, Reinder received nothing but courtesy and kindness. 

Mandela endured unimaginable personal suffering in the pursuit of justice for his country. 

That after more than 27 years in prison he found in his heart capacity for genuine forgiveness and understanding for his former enemies and oppressors gives us all hope that no matter how great our differences - peace and reconciliation can be achieved. 

I had the enormous privilege of meeting Mr Mandela during his visit to Melbourne in 2000 as part of World Reconciliation Day. 

I recall with great fondness receiving a warm hug from Madiba. 

Asked about the need for an apology to Australia’s Indigenous peoples, Mandela responded: 

“In Australia here, I have confidence in both population groups that there are competent and able men and women with experience who are able to resolve their problems, and who know how to resolve them.” 

Mandela’s optimism for reconciliation in Australia was validated in 2008, when our Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, said sorry. 

One of those able men that Mandela unknowingly made reference to in his answer was Australia’s Father of Reconciliation, Patrick Dodson. 

In his remarks on Mandela’s death, Dodson stated that Mandela’s greatest lesson was: 

“… to believe that there's goodness in all human beings, irrespective of their colour, their beliefs, their particular ideology.” 

The legacies of Nelson Mandela’s life will be many and some will only become visible to us through the passage of time. 

But perhaps his greatest legacy, to borrow Patrick Dodson’s wise observation, is to demonstrate to future generations the capacity for peace and forgiveness that reside in the heart of every human being. 

Equipped with these lessons, people around the world will continue to pursue a better world. 

May he continue to inspire many generations to come. 

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