Remembering Nelson Mandela

Nelson MandelaThe sad news about the passing of great leader Nelson Mandela has affected millions of people around the globe. I wanted to document and share how his life, vision and courage shaped my life and in some way made me the person I am today.

I do remember a humorous tale about Nelson Mandela after his release from prison. He was invited to Dublin to attend an official ceremony in 1990. At the same time, Ireland did very well in the World Cup and reached the quarter final. The Irish national team were on an open bus on a tour of the city. Roddy Doyle (author of The Commitments) told the story that half a million people were chanting “Ooh Ah Paul McGrath’s Da, Ooh Ah Paul McGrath’s Da…”. Apparently, Nelson Mandela found it amusing that, after he’d spent 27 years in prison, the crowd were cheering, thinking he was the father of one of their sporting icons.

My first memory of Nelson Mandela and the Apartheid movement was towards the end of the 1970s, in senior school. By that time Nelson Mandela was serving a life sentence on Robben Island, for creating acts of sabotage against the South African Government. I was intrigued by a man who could not be discussed.

Like most senior schools, there were a mix of students, some sporty, some academic, some musical and creative. There were also those that asserted themselves (I guess today they’d be referred to as bullies – spiteful and mean individuals). I was an easy target due to my personality and skin colour living in a predominately white working/middle class home counties town.

It was the Soweto Uprising in June 1977 that sparked a lively debate about the Apartheid system in South Africa. We debated the pros and cons of economic sanctions and, as you can imagine, these discussions exposed a variety of values and beliefs about race and politic. Some of the students were genuinely in favour of Apartheid and were quite vocal with their views and opinions. Following on from those debates, I was subjected to some cruel taunts and jibes from a minority of students.

In retaliation, my teacher suggested I present my perspective in an assembly to the whole school. That’s when I began reading about Nelson Mandela, his fight for equality, freedom and his imprisonment on Robben Island.

I don’t remember the assembly, but I do remember my interpretation of the word apartheid. Translated, it means “separateness”. I tried to explain what that meant for those brave students in Soweto. I told the school the stories I’d read in the papers about the Soweto students protest about mandatory instruction in Afrikaans. More than 500 students were killed, the majority younger than 18. I showed graphic pictures from a newspaper of Hector Pieterson being carried by Mbuyisa Makhubo after being shot by South African police and Antoinette Sithole, running along besides them.

I talked about inequality for students and the motivation behind the riots. I also talked about non-whites detained without trial and the murder of medical student Steve Biko. There were also phone taps, the exile of courageous journalist Donald Woods and harsh reporting restrictions. I remember feeling humbled and asking the whole assembly if they could imagine being so brave, taking such action to stand up for their rights and being prepared to suffer the consequences.

Finally, I talked about Nelson Mandela and his speech. During our lessons and debating sessions, Nelson Mandela and ANC members were portrayed as criminals and terrorists. I found out he and his associates were well educated. He was a lawyer and gave a powerful speech at the time of his sentencing. It was a long speech, much of which I did not understand but this is what I remember.

“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.”

After that assembly, there was a renewed mutual respect between myself and my tormentors and the remainder of my senior years passed in relative harmony – we learnt to get along despite our differences.

Over the years, I’ve learnt some valuable lessons, thanks to Nelson Mandela. He gave a whole generation hope, pride, forgiveness and the ultimate master class in peaceful negotiation.

Thank you for making my life full of hope.