Thursday, February 11, 2010
Our march to freedom is irreversible
Feb 11th 10
“Our struggle has reached a decisive moment. We call on our people to seize this moment so that the process towards democracy is rapid and uninterrupted. We have waited too long for our freedom. We can no longer wait… Our march to freedom is irreversible. We must not allow fear to stand in our way.”
These are some of the historic words Nelson Mandela spoke to a jubilant crowd of tens of thousands in his first public address to the people of South Africa, and of the world, in Cape Town several hours after his release from prison.
20 years ago today Madiba stepped out of Victor-Verster prison in Paarl. Like millions of others around the world this Blog watched his long walk away from those gates with his wife Winnie. It was a hugely emotional moment as the two walked hand in hand through throngs of people cheering and clapping his release after 27 years of imprisonment. This Blog sat alone, weeping and applauding and cheering with pride and delight.
And several hours later when Mandela stood on the balcony of Cape Town’s City Hall he set out his objectives clearly – freedom and democracy and “to unite the people of our country.”
It was a great moment for the people of South Africa and for freedom loving people everywhere. The dawn of a new era for a country carved out by violence from that part of Africa by European colonial powers. A country where a white minority had taken absolute political power over the majority.
The years of apartheid were horrific. The oppression and discrimination and violence of the state resulted in decades of conflict, misery, and poverty for the vast majority of South Africa’s citizens.
The struggle of the ANC and of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK – Spear of the Nation), along with the international anti-apartheid campaign had finally brought the National Party to the negotiation table. But Madiba and the ANC knew that they were simply entering another phase of struggle.
Later when I visited South Africa for the first time in 1995, the year after Madiba was elected President, I spoke and listened at length to many in the ANC leadership, as well some in the National Party and on the right wing. The National Party people freely admitted that they had not seen the release of Mandela as the beginning of a handover of power to the majority.
They thought that the ANC would be too divided, its leadership too indisciplined, to effectively negotiate. They envisioned a process that would take decades. And that was one of many mistakes they made. They underestimated the ability of Madiba and Cyril Ramaphosa and Joe Slovo and countless others in the ANC leadership and within a few short years Madiba was President of a free South Africa.
Of all the political leaderships I had met up to then and since, never have I met a group as cohesive, articulate and far-seeing as those in that ANC leadership.
This Blog has had the great fortune to meet Madiba many times in the two decades since his release. Sometimes in South Africa, occasionally in London, and once in Dublin when he attended the Special Olympics.
On that first visit in June 1995 the British Government and sections of its media were outraged that he would meet with a delegation of Shinners. When it became clear that Madiba would not be swayed and intended to meet us privately and at a press conference, they demanded that there should be no handshake!
Consequently, when we met him in his outer office at the ANC headquarters at Shell House in Jo’burg, Madiba’s face lit up and as we shook hands he grinned mischievously, “Ah, comrade Gerry, I’ll not wash my hand for a week.”
That day we spent several hours talking to him. He recalled how on a visit to Ireland three years earlier and at a time when the British were secretly talking to republicans, he had called for talks between the British and Irish republicans and how sections of the British and Irish media had condemned him for this.
He came to Ireland that time to receive the honour of the freedom of Dublin City. Our Gearoid and I travelled to be there. The Irish soccer team was coming home that day as well and Dublin Airport was thronged with fans. When Mandela appeared at the terminus he was greeted with loud and prolonged appaluse and the chant:
‘Oh ah Paul McGrath’s Da,
Oh ah Paul McGrath’s Da’.
I’m sure Madiba enjoyed the fun in that.
In all my conversations with him I have found him good humoured, relaxed, warm and deeply interested in events in Ireland. He is one of my heroes.I believe him to be the greatest political leader of our times.