Dec 11, 2013

Nelson Mandela

Mr ALBANESE (Grayndler) (10:24):  When we review the lives of the great men and women of history, the people who are remembered well beyond their lifetimes, their common characteristics are their commitment to justice and their level of connection with their own humanity. Whether they were politicians, preachers, peace campaigners, writers or entertainers, those who are remembered best are those who speak to the human soul. They slice through the political white noise of the day to appeal to the human heart.

Think of Abraham Lincoln, who taught America that slavery was an affront to humanity; Martin Luther King, who reminded his nation that real freedom required genuine equality; or Mahatma Ghandi, who taught India that the road to justice was also the road of peace; John F. Kennedy, who taught the world to ask what the individual can do for his or her country, not to ask what their country could do for them.

Nelson Mandela is the great voice of freedom in our time, a man whose contribution to humanity has no peer. He began his adult life fighting for freedom. He was so committed to freedom that he was prepared to endure 27 years in prison to demonstrate his commitment. The whole world watched when news came through that he would be released from prison. It was a time of massive celebration, as Mr Mandela walked free with the words, ‘Free at last.’ This was an extraordinary time. It is important, I think, to pay tribute to those people in South Africa, as members of the African National Congress, but also around the world: those citizens of Australia and the globe who campaigned for an end to apartheid. The labour movement, I believe, has much to be proud of for the role that we played. I well remember getting criticism for inviting Eddie Funde, the ANC representative in Australia, to speak at a Young Labor conference. It was seen to be controversial at the time in terms of support for the ANC. Eddie Funde, while he was here in Australia, was subject to violent attacks including a shooting at his home in Ultimo in Sydney. This was not an issue of consensus. This was an issue on which the forces of right, however, prevailed substantially and people from across the political spectrum—people like Malcolm Fraser and others—were prepared to engage in support for sanctions against South Africa, to send the message. And, not to send it in a rhetorical way but to send a message by crippling the economy and crippling those who gained economic advantage from the apartheid system, that they would not continue to be able to profit from the misery of the majority of citizens of South Africa on the basis of their race.

It was quite extraordinary that just eight months after his release, Nelson Mandela came to Australia. As someone who was active in the anti-apartheid movement, I had the honour and the privilege of meeting Mr Mandela face to face and having conversations with him at meetings that were held at Sydney Trades Hall and at the major event that occurred at the Sydney Opera House where people in their tens of thousands came to see this great man. What struck you, and everyone who met him, was his humility. He was genuinely effusive in his response to people. This was someone who had been locked up on Robben Island—and I have seen the cell in which he was kept for 27 years—who genuinely engaged with people and was prepared to give everyone the benefit of the doubt.

He had an extraordinary ability to project a positive vision for the future, not just in what he said but how he said it. How he danced onto the stage that had been established at the Sydney Opera House forecourt made people cry with joy at being in his presence, at having that honour. To him though there were no airs and graces. He came to thank us for our support in the ending of apartheid. It was us who should thank him for making the world a better place by his example.

What I also think was quite extraordinary was that Mandela emerged from incarceration prepared to forgive his oppressors. In this building, where so many things that do not matter a jot inspire bitterness and division, his example is one that is a lesson to all of us involved in politics, and to the world. The reserves of inner strength that this required! He could have emerged from prison bitter—most people would have, frankly, and it would have been very difficult to have any criticism of anyone who would. But Mandela was a leader, a great leader who examined his heart, thought about the future and came up with a better way.

He understood that the way to end decades of hatred was not to promote still further hatred but to embrace forgiveness and reconciliation. Mandela talked the talk but he also walked the walk. He walked all the way to a new South Africa. We can only marvel at his example; it is an achievement of the kind that we only see once in a lifetime. People of my generation came to adulthood aware that Mandela was in prison and bewildered by the institutionalised racism of South Africa. But we did not know Mandela until he was released, and it was only after he emerged from prison with his spirit of humility and reconciliation that we truly saw his greatness. This is because his life showed us that even though some of our human instincts tempt us to respond to injustice with vengeance, ultimately anger gets us nowhere. The real answer to injustice is to work together towards its elimination. This was the genius of Nelson Mandela.