Thursday, 12 December 2013

Speech in Parliament - Mr Nelson Mandela AC - 12 December 2013

Mr TONY SMITH (Casey) (10:32): In rising to speak on this motion, I want to say how compelling the contributions have been, from the Deputy Prime Minister in the House to all those who have contributed over the last few hours, including the previous speaker, the member for Grayndler.

It was a little over a half a century before Nelson Mandela's birth that Abraham Lincoln said:

Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power.

The life of Nelson Mandela is one that demonstrated humility and nobility. All of us, in speaking on this motion, are recognising a man who occupies pride of place in the pantheon of history's greatest peacemakers.

Many speakers have spoken of the adversity he confronted and, of course, he confronted it on the first day of his birth because he was born into a society built upon the bedrock of racism. At that time people's status, both legal and social, was of course determined solely by the colour of their skin. As a young man he exemplified the spirit of his favourite piece of verse, the poem Invictus, by William Ernest Henley.

He was determined to be the master of his own fate and the captain of his own soul. He was accepted into the University of Fort Hare, an elite institution, and it was there that the first glimmerings of his concern for social justice became visible. He was expelled for participation in protests against poor living conditions.

After leaving university, as we know, he transitioned from campus activist to civil rights leader. He joined the African National Congress and was instrumental in forming its youth league. Put on trial in 1964, he made a statement to the court that I have heard many times in the last few hours in this debate. At the end, he looked the judge in the eye and said:

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 will live together in harmony with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for, and to see realised. But my Lord, if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.

His eloquence, as we know, was to no avail, and he was condemned to life imprisonment and would serve 27 years of that sentence.

During that time, as he languished in the prison cell, the world changed. The international community became increasingly intolerant of South Africa's apartheid system. During the seventies and eighties, a series of international economic and cultural sanctions were put in place, and by the mid-eighties it became increasingly obvious to the political establishment in Johannesburg that the system was no longer tenable. The changing tide of history reversed the dynamic between the imprisoned and the imprisoners.

In 1985 the government opened negotiations with the still-incarcerated Nelson Mandela about the abolition of apartheid and the transition of South Africa to democracy. But it took five more years until the newly-elected president, FW de Klerk, legalised the African National Congress and released Nelson Mandela from his imprisonment.

All of us will look back and remember that time. I vividly remember watching the late news that carried pictures live of the release. At that point, the story of Nelson Mandela's life, as we have all spoken about in these last few days, transitioned to another phase. In one fell swoop he was transformed from a prisoner to the apex of South African politics.

He won the presidency in 1994 in a landslide. He now had power, and the question was what he would do with it. And it is what he did that makes him so worthy of inclusion amongst the ranks of the world's greatest leaders. The previous speaker and many before, of course, have alluded to this, that the moral measure of the man—someone who was 71 years old and who had spent more than a quarter of a century unjustly imprisoned—was that he never succumbed to rancour or resentment. Rather than vindictiveness he displayed forgiveness, and from his first day of freedom he worked not for conflict but for conciliation. His calm words and his dignified demeanour helped to heal the gaping words in the social fabric of South Africa.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission established under his presidency helped South Africa moved beyond the ugly past. He recognised the power of sport as a unifier, promoting the victory of the racially integrated Springboks in 1995 at the World Cup as a symbol of a reborn South Africa. In 1999, he proved true to his word, freely relinquishing power by standing down after a single term as South African President. As we know in this House and as the public reflect, as they have in recent days, by any measure Nelson Mandela was one for the ages.

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