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The Nelson Mandela Centenary Lecture by Julia Gillard

‘A Saint is a Sinner who keeps on trying.’ The life and legacy of Nelson Mandela.
Delivered by Julia Gillard at the Melbourne Town Hall on 13 July 2018.

Introduction 

I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet and in a spirit of reconciliation pay my respects to Elders past and present.

I acknowledge Steve Rametse and thank him for the invitation to speak tonight and for all the hard work he and his team of volunteers have put in to create this occasion.

I acknowledge and thank all those who have spoken before me.  Having political representatives from the Labor Party, the Liberal Party and the Greens speak here visibly reinforces that, in Australia, fighting apartheid was a bipartisan struggle joined in by Gough Whitlam, Malcolm Fraser and Bob Hawke.

I thank Sally McManus for her generous introduction.  In her role as ACTU Secretary, she is welds together her fresh, contemporary perspective with the best of the historic traditions of Australian trade unionism.  Our nation is a better place because decade after decade, women and men have come together to fight for fairness.  As you have so well described Sally, in the struggle against apartheid, Australia trade unions played a truly honourable and effective role.

A centenary

The image we all hold in our minds of Nelson Mandela is one of an older, gracious man who emerges from gaol unbowed and not embittered.  A man, who after nearly 10,000 days of imprisonment, with much of the time spent breaking rocks on Robben Island, extends a hand of peace and reconciliation to all those who embrace his vision of a truly democratic South Africa, in which race no longer determines who votes and who rules.  A man who had every reason to despise white South Africans but sought to reach out to them as equals.

But this man of forgiveness was once a warrior, standing proud and strong before a South African court, dressed in a traditional leopard skin cloak and holding a defiant fist in the air.

And this freedom fighter was once a boy, born to play a tribal role in his ancestral homeland of rolling hills and fertile valleys.

Tonight, I want to pay homage to this great man, to consider his legacy, including challenging you with some searching questions about how truly we have learned from his example.

100 years ago, on the 18th of July 1918, a boy was born in Mvezo, a tiny village almost 900 kilometres south of Johannesburg, South Africa.

Royal blood flowed through the veins of his grandfather Mandela.  As result, the boy’s role in life was already foretold.  As a man, he would become a counsellor to the rulers of the Thembu tribe.

This boy, named Rolihlahla Mandela, was the first person in his family to go to school.  I have always believed education has a transformative power.  In the case of this seven year-old boy, that transformation was a literal one. His teacher at school followed the tradition of the time and gave every child an English name. Rolihlahla became Nelson.

By the age of nine, Nelson had encountered tragedy and upheaval.  His father had died and his mother, to maximise his advantages in life, had taken him to live as a ward of the tribal chief.

A boy, deprived of a father and forced to live apart from his mother, could have easily become traumatised. But Nelson thrived, supported by two systems of belief, that though uneasy with each other, were somehow balanced in his life.  The first was his adherence to the rules of his tribe, the second was Christianity.

The patronage of the tribal chief enabled Nelson Mandela to complete school and attend university; an incredibly rare opportunity for a black man in South Africa at that time.

Yet, for all the benefits being a ward of the local ruler brought him, this increasingly educated young man started to chafe against the restriction of having no say in his future.  His life’s work, his home, who he would marry, were all to be determined by others.

So Nelson Mandela engaged in his first real act of rebellion.  He fled to Johannesburg and took the initial steps towards what would become the most historic of lives.

There was no one moment that transformed a man who saw his primary identity as a member of the Thembu tribe, into a man who saw himself as an African.  No one moment when his rebellion moved from being against the strictures of traditional life to being against the abomination of apartheid.

No one moment that transformed a country child, whose earliest memories were of running free in the veld, into a political prisoner, sentenced to a tiny cell for the rest of his life.

The journey must be measured in years.  Years of poverty, years of increasing activism and risk, years of living under laws that, to quote Nelson Mandela himself, meant:

An African child is born in an Africans Only hospital, taken home in an Africans Only bus, lives in an Africans Only area and attends Africans Only schools, if he attends at all.  

When he grows up, he can hold Africans Only jobs, rent a house in Africans Only townships, ride Africans Only trains and be stopped at any time of the day or night and be ordered to produce a pass, without which he can be arrested and thrown in jail.  His life is circumscribed by racist laws and regulations that cripple his growth, dim his potential and stunt his life.

In 1947, as Nelson Mandela moves from his twenties into his thirties, he is elected to his first position in the African National Congress and becomes bound to it ‘heart and soul’.

By 1949, partly as a result of Mandela’s advocacy, the ANC becomes a truly mass organisation, embracing the strategies of passive resistance used to such enormous effect by Mahatma Gandhi in the struggle in India. Until that point the ANC had sought to work within the law.

Quite quickly the personal cost of being at the forefront of the struggle becomes apparent.  Ducking police bullets as they are fired at protesting crowds.  Being told that his five year-old son had asked, ‘where does daddy live?’ because Nelson Mandela left home so early and came back so late his boy never saw him.

The ANC stepping up its campaigning was both fuelled by and resulted in increased oppression by the government.  The year 1950 brought two new assaults.  One was the misnamed Suppression of Communism Act, which made punishable by up to ten years’ imprisonment, advocating any doctrine that promoted ‘political, industrial, social or economic change . . . by the promotion of disturbance or disorder’.

The second was the Population Registration and Group Areas Acts.  The government now sought to classify every person as black, coloured or white based on criteria like the curl of one’s hair or the size of one’s lips.  Families were broken apart as a result of brothers and sisters, parents and children, receiving different classifications.  Individuals could be forcibly removed and violently relocated from one place to another if they were seen as black but living in a white area.

By 1953, Nelson Mandela, who was never a member of the Communist Party, was convicted of statutory communism and sentenced to nine months imprisonment with the sentence suspended.

He had also been banned for six months from attending meetings of all kinds, not just political ones.  Under the ban, he was not able to talk to more than one person at a time, which meant he could not attend his son’s birthday party.

Despite these attacks, his ANC activities continued and with fellow activist Oliver Tambo, he opened a law firm, which supported black, coloured and Indian South Africans, for whom the day to day practice of apartheid generated all sorts of fines and threats of imprisonment. Drinking from a Whites Only water fountain.  Walking on a Whites Only beach. Being unemployed or being employed in the wrong place.  Being homeless or living in the wrong place.  All of this spelt legal trouble.

Against this backdrop of frenetic work and growing prominence, Mandela made a speech in which he said, ‘the time for passive resistance has ended, . . .  non- violence was a useless strategy and could never overturn a white minority regime bent on retaining its power at any cost. . . At the end of the day, . . . violence was the only weapon that would destroy apartheid’. While given off the cuff, this speech did represent an emerging change in Mandela’s thinking.

At the time, the ANC Executive reprimanded Mandela for this speech, but as history records, it was prescient.

By the end of 1956, Mandela had been banned from attending meetings for another two years, and then received another ban for 5 years.  On top of these acts of oppression, he had also been charged with high treason, along with the almost the entire national executive of the ANC.  White, coloured and Indian leaders were also targeted in this deliberated attempt to deprive all the anti-apartheid organisations of their leaders.

This resulted in a thirteen-month preparatory examination, with the magistrate ultimately deciding there was sufficient evidence to proceed with the case, in which it was alleged that the accused were engaged in a conspiracy to use violence to overthrow the government and replace it with a communist state.

It was not until August 1959 that the trial proper commenced, and this farce finally ended in acquittal on the 29th of March 1961.  Here is a fine example of three judges being prepared to do their jobs faithfully, even under the most acute pressure.

But while the trial wound its way through its tortuous course, South Africa changed.  The massacre in Sharpeville of 69 people and the wounding of around 180 hundred other unarmed black South Africans, who were overwhelmingly shot in the back by white police as they tried to flee, reverberated around the nation and the world.

In response the government introduced a period of martial law and Nelson Mandela, amongst many others, was detained without trial and charge, even as he was on bail but facing charges of treason.

By the time the treason trial was over, Mandela had agreed with the ANC leadership that he would go underground, knowing that inevitably he would be arrested again.  The ANC was also making preparations to get some of its leaders out of the country, so the struggle could continue even if a further crackdown brought outright banning of the organisation.  Most significantly, the ANC agreed that Mandela should form a separate new military organisation.  The ANC’s fifty years of operating solely on the basis of non-violence were over.

Mandela’s strategy for violence was based on sabotage, which he identified as the least likely to cause loss of life while still inflicting damage on the regime. Bombings did occur at power stations and overnight at government offices.  Mandela managed to slip out of South Africa in search of military training and weapons for his recruits.  Indeed, he even got as far as London, looking for political understanding and support.

Life on the run came to an end on the 5th August 1962, when Mandela was finally apprehended by South African police while driving away from Durban, after a meeting with one of his local commanders.  One of his favourite disguises was as a white man’s chauffeur.

At the resulting trial, Nelson Mandela gives no quarter challenging the judge by saying:

Whatever sentence Your Worship sees fit to impose upon me for the crime for which I have been convicted before this court, may it rest assured that when my sentence has been completed I will still be moved, as men are always moved, by their conscience; I will still be moved by my dislike of the race discrimination against my people when I come out from serving my sentence, to take up again, as best I can, the struggle for the removal of those injustices until they are finally abolished once and for all.

Mandela is sentenced to five years with no possibility of parole.  Nine months into this sentence, he was charged with sabotage, after the commanders of the military force Mandela had started to establish, were arrested while in a possession of a plan for guerrilla warfare in South Africa.  While the plan had been drafted in Mandela’s absence and there was disagreement about whether it was ANC policy, the prosecution produced a witness who had been a saboteur and directly implicated Mandela.  In addition, documents showed him to have been behind the formation of the military wing.

Once again, Mandela, along with his co-accused, set out to make the trial about apartheid and oppression.  Facing the death penalty, they determined not to deny responsibility for sabotage or turning away from non-violence but intended to dispute the central contention of planning to start a guerrilla war.

At this trial, Mandela does not plead for his life.  Instead, he says the now-famous words:

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 for and [aim] to achieve.  But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.’

True to that statement, he instructed his lawyers that whatever sentence he ultimately received, including the death sentence, he would not appeal.  He and a number of his co-accused would by their own actions demonstrate that no sacrifice was too great in the struggle for freedom.

On the 12th of June 1964, Mandela and each of his co-defendants was sentence to life imprisonment.

Lessons of the Mandela legacy – violence and peace

If Nelson Mandela had been a pacifist, who emerged from decades of incarceration preaching forgiveness, that would have been a consistent, heroic and remarkable life well lived.

But the full of arc of Mandela’s life requires us to confront more layers, more complexity.

A man who argued for the building of bombs becomes a peace maker.

The head of a parallel military organisation to the ANC goes on to win the Nobel Peace Prize and does so with the white Prime Minister of South Africa, Mr FW de Klerk.

The man, then known as the black pimpernel, who secretly travelled in search of weapons, later calls on others to put aside thoughts of violence.

The life of Nelson Mandela requires us to think through excruciatingly complex questions about when to fight and when to enfold.

His own words can help us work through this conundrum.

On trial for his life, he said the following words to the court about the decision to move away from a strategy of non-violence:

‘We of the ANC have always stood for a nonracial democracy, and we shrank from any action which might drive the races father apart that they already were.  But the hard facts were that fifty years of nonviolence had brought the African people nothing but more repressive legislation, and fewer and fewer rights.  . . our policy to achieve a nonracial state by non-violence had achieved nothing, and . . . our followers were beginning to lose confidence in this policy and were developing disturbing ideas of terrorism. 

We felt the country was drifting towards civil war in which blacks and whites would fight each other.  . . . We already have examples in South African history of the results of war.  It has taken more than fifty years for the scars of the South African [Anglo Boer] war to disappear.  How much longer would it take to eradicate the scars of inter-racial civil war, which could not be fought without a great loss of life on both sides. . .

Experience convinced us that rebellion would offer the government limitless opportunities for the indiscriminate slaughter of our people.  But it was precisely because the soil of South Africa is already drenched with the blood of innocent Africans that we felt it our duty to make preparations as a long term undertaking to use force in order to defend ourselves against force.

Mandela was asking the judges and the millions of South Africans beyond the court room to understand that even in contemplating a strategy of sabotage, even when seeking arms, his mind had ranged to the days beyond, to the time of reconciliation.

He understood non-violence would fail with a regime so undemocratic and despotic.  But his strategy was to limit harm.

To do only what was necessary to hold the faith of his people so they would stick with discipline and organisation, with the ANC, rather than take matters into their own hands and trigger more bloodshed.

To only do what was necessary to be able to fight should civil war come.

Intellectually, this helps us to see more continuity and less juxtaposition between Mandela the leopard skin clad warrior and the Mandela who walked out of the gates of gaol rejecting retribution.

But truly understanding Mandela’s journey seems to call for more from us than understanding his thoughtful reasoning.

It requires us to try to see more than the working of his mind.  We need a sense of his spirit, his soul.

In a letter to his then wife Winnie, Nelson Mandela wrote this from his cell on Robben Island:

‘You may find that the cell is an ideal place to learn to know yourself, to search realistically and regularly the process of your own mind and feelings.  In judging our progress as individuals we tend to concentrate on external factors such as one’s social position, influence and popularity, wealth and standard of education.  These are, of course, important in measuring one’s success in material matters and it is perfectly understandable if many people exert themselves mainly to achieve all these.’

But internal factors may be even more crucial in assessing one’s development as a human being.  Honesty, sincerity, simplicity, humility, pure generosity, absence of vanity, readiness to serve others – qualities which are within easy reach of every soul – are the foundation of one’s spiritual life.

Development in matters of this nature is inconceivable without serious introspection, without knowing yourself, your weaknesses and mistakes.  At least, if for nothing else, the cell gives you the opportunity to look daily into your entire conduct, to overcome the bad and develop whatever is good in you.  . . . Never forget that a saint is a sinner who keeps on trying . .  . No ax is sharp enough to cut the soul of a sinner who keeps on trying, one armed with the hope that he will rise and win in the end.’

I have re-read these words many times preparing for this speech.  Each time I have felt a sense of being rebuked and wonder in equal measure.  Wonder that a man held captive for so long should find such transcendence in a prison.  Rebuke because we in our pampered lives cannot find ten minutes to do the same.

Yet we should not allow Mandela’s equanimity to blind us to how he suffered.

Not seeing his daughter from the time she was two years old until she was allowed to visit him in prison at the age of 16.

Not even being able to attend the funeral when his son died.

Not knowing if the limited number of letters he was allowed to send his family were getting through.

The many indignities of prison life piled on top of the loneliness.

The insistence of prison authorities that whites in gaol get better meals than Indians who in turn were fed better meals than black inmates.

The backbreaking work in a quarry with the glare of reflected light so intolerable it damaged the eyes.

And the list could go on and on.

Nelson Mandela learned how to endure.  In his words:

‘It was the desire for the freedom of my people to live lives with dignity and self-respect that animated my life, that transformed a frightened young man into a bold one, that drove a law-abiding attorney to become a criminal, that turned a family-loving husband into a man without a home, that forced a life-loving man to life like a monk’.

Lessons of the Mandela legacy – reflections on how we live today

Mandela’s legacy teaches us about the value of purpose and a highly developed sense of self.

It also teaches us profound lessons about patience and movement building.

Contemplating what to say tonight, I found myself wondering whether in today’s hyper fast, inter-connected and thoroughly impatient world, the wave of international support that ultimately helped free Nelson Mandela and end apartheid would have come more quickly and effectively.

I ask you to imagine a world in which Nelson Mandela was born in 1968 not 1918, and sentenced to life imprisonment in 2014 not 1964.

What would be different?

I think it is fair to say that repugnance for a racist system like apartheid would be even more deeply held and widely spread in the contemporary world.

And undoubtedly, every word and key moment of his trial and his imprisonment would have been instantaneously flashed around our world; tweeted about and in news feeds on Facebook.

While prison authorities would still be motivated to close down the information getting in to gaol and out of it, that would be much harder to achieve in today’s world.  Imagine drones getting photos and film of Mandela pounding stones.

All this means the wave of international support would gather more quickly.  What would have been avoided was the many years of Mandela’s imprisonment in which his cause and plight were not broadly understood.

Out of all of this would come consumer boycotts of South African products and sporting and cultural events.  It is impossible to imagine, in the kind of climate that would be created, anyone promoting a Springboks tours of Australia or World Series Cricket matches in South Africa.  Indeed, the reverse would happen.  Under pressure to maintain their brands, major businesses would likely announce cessation of visible engagement with South Africa.

So is it accurate to conclude international pressure would end this fictional modern Mandela’s incarceration more quickly?

I want to say yes.  But I worry the real answer could be no.

I worry that in today’s world we are quick to outrage but often lack the commitment to sustained campaigning.  What if, as would seem likely, the regime in South Africa made the decision to ride out the social and traditional media storm?  As days of imprisonment turned in weeks, then months, then years, would the wave just dissipate as the world clicked other topics, as something else became the outrage du jour?

To take a parallel example, it has been over four years since Boko Haram kidnapped 276 girls from the town of Chibok in Nigeria.  More than 100 are still missing and while there are some continuing protests and calls for their return, #bringbackourgirls no longer globally trends.

As the world’s gaze turned elsewhere, would corporations quietly return to business as usual?

Even more profoundly, is tweet, like, click, activism ever enough?  If the example of Nelson Mandela teaches us anything, it is that true movement building happens by people being prepared to personally show up and commit, not by simply gazing down and tapping.

But surely, I have mused to myself, the quick gathering storm of international protest would propel governments into sanctions against South Africa.

Let’s remind ourselves that achieving the imposition of sanctions, as a strategy to force South Africa to free Nelson Mandela and move to a multiracial democracy, took many years of diplomacy, with the Commonwealth in the lead.

In 1977, when Mandela had been in gaol for well over a decade, the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, CHOGM, collectively endorsed the first international move in the global campaign to isolate South Africa from world sport. Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser was a leader in arguing for its adoption, and our nation under Gough Whitlam had already unilaterally banned South African sporting teams. The United Nations boycott followed six months later.

In 1979, CHOGM issued the Lusaka Declaration on Racism and Racial Prejudice, the central statement of the Commonwealth’s abhorrence of all forms of racism, including in members’ own societies.

In 1986, the Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group, including Malcolm Fraser, visited Nelson Mandela in prison and ‘set out the negotiating concept to end apartheid in South Africa peacefully.’ The creation of this group was the result of a compromise brokered by Prime Minister Bob Hawke, to overcome the impasse at CHOGM, with the British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher holding out for a policy of constructive engagement while others wanted tough sanctions.

Fortified by the recommendations of the Eminent Persons Group, more countries adopted sanctions against South Africa.  Both Fraser and Hawke continued to work for ever increasing sanctions, including crippling financial sanctions against the regime.

The United Nations, including the Security Council, became increasingly engaged and a pressure point for change, especially after the horror of the Sharpeville massacre.  In 1977 it implemented a mandatory arms embargo.

While the sanctions and embargoes against South Africa were never uniformly implemented, and countries continued to be motivated by the needs of their own economies, the history books show an ever increasing international will to end apartheid and free Mandela.

In our fictional world, would the global community reach this point more quickly?

Once again, I want to say yes.   To conclude that the time between cause and effect is lessening in international diplomacy in the same way it is contracting in almost every realm of life.

But I remain uncertain, because the very forces of interconnection that have changed our world, have also spawned a virulent politics of global disengagement.

It is understandable that those who feel hit and hurt by change, people whose secure jobs have been replaced with insecure, insufficient work or no work at all, people who walk down their main street and do not recognise it any more, are drawn to the siren song of those who seem to promise a return to the past, a time before globalization, technological disruption, visible ethnic diversity within communities and the gender revolution.

The fact that this kind of populism often exists within conservative parties side by side with advocates of globalization and business interests, makes for internal conflict, even tension and trauma.

The schisms within the Tories over Brexit are the a clear contemporary global example of the phenomenon I am seeking to describe.

Part of the Tory constituency is experiencing globalization and integration with Europe as a benefit – think particularly of London’s business community. Whereas another part of its constituency sees and feels it as a burden, and believes it causes loss of jobs and community disruption.

These constituencies have different views of the future, with those embracing change likely to see the future as one of opportunity and those hurt by it hankering for a romanticised view of the past.

Age demographics matter here. Unsurprisingly the young are more likely to be embracers of change and were disproportionately inclined to stay with the integration and opportunities of the European Union. Put simply, they were more likely to imagine themselves taking advantage of the EU’s labour mobility than be challenged by it.

But we should note that today’s older generation, which disproportionately voted Leave, at an earlier period in their lives were more prepared to support the EU. The result of the referendum in 1975, where 67% of people voted to remain, cannot be explained otherwise. It seems that the ever-increasing pace of change, the tepid recovery from the Global Financial Crisis and identity questions arising because of the free movement of labour and record numbers of asylum seekers have changed their minds.

There is nothing party political about this kind of analysis. The supporters of progressive parties are similarly divided between the outward looking, who view themselves as global citizens and many working people, some who still hold dearly on to their trade union membership, who have seen too much down side from change.

Nor is there anything country specific about it. The UK is assuredly not alone in feeling these trends. Indeed, President Trump is the exemplar of them. He came to office because of his ability to harness, as well as stoke, the anger of those who feel dispossessed by change.

In part, his erraticism on the global stage may be driven by personal style but it is also a function of this underlying deeper politics.  It would be a wrong to mistake symptom for cause.  President Trump’s election is a symptom of, not the root cause of sections of society demanding a turn inwards and away from global concerns.

Given all this, would international co-operation against the great moral wrong of apartheid be any more easily won in today’s world?

The fact we cannot leap with certainty to answering ‘yes of course’, tells us that collectively we have much to do to try and cool the temper of our times, nourish trust and invest in the structures of co-operation locally, nationally and globally.

One small part of doing that enormous task, in my view, lies in sustaining the institution of the Commonwealth.

Of course, the pattern of country connections in our highly globalised world is no longer defined by the Commonwealth nations, which were all coloured pink on the map I studied in school.

But given the challenges of our world are so many and multi-faceted, it would be unwise to repudiate an institution that has a proven capacity to influence our world for the better. However effective the United Nations is in any particular era, there will always be more problems and issues in our world than it can hope to address.

And, in today’s world, there is a need for leaders to find some quiet place for collaboration without the immediate presence of any tensions between the world’s two super-powers, the US and China.

Conclusion

As leaders meet at international meetings, or in their national parliaments, the example of Nelson Mandela can be a guide.

Indeed, his life and legacy can guide all of us as we think through our own sense of purpose and self.

A man, who pursued a moral cause with courage.

A man, who endured hardship and became wiser and warmer, not broken and bitter. In his words:

‘No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion.  People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.  Even in the grimmest of times in prison, when my comrades and I were pushed to our limits, I would see a glimmer of humanity in one of the guards, perhaps just for a second, but it was enough to reassure me and keep me going.  Man’s goodness is a flame that can be hidden but never extinguished.

A man, who took a long walk to freedom and then on his inauguration as President of South Africa made a pledge that puts into words a creed to live by:

We pledge ourselves to liberate all our people from the continuing bondage of poverty, deprivation, suffering, gender and other discrimination’.

A man we honour tonight.