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Mandela

“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 with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to see realised. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” Nelson Mandela at the culmination of the Rivonia Trial in 1964.

I remember when Nelson Mandela came to Glasgow to thank the city who had been first to offer him its freedom. By then he was well on his journey from becoming an imprisoned man dubbed a terrorist by the government of South Africa, to being a world statesman and perhaps the most universally revered and genuinely loved politician ever.

Several years earlier, the award to Mandela of freeman of the city wasn’t quite so well received. It was controversial and many saw it as gesture politics. In those early days of Thatcherism it went against the UK Zeitgeist and to be honest had limited support in Scotland.

Isn’t hindsight a wonderful thing?

I have enjoyed the reflective coverage of his life over the last couple of days.”We must liberate not only the oppressed but also the oppressor” is one quote which epitomised his approach to presidential power. This was demonstrated with his approach to the Rugby World Cup in 1995. Previous to the tournament there was a meeting of the fledgling democracy’s sporting committees at which they had just voted to change the traditional green and gold strip and the emblem of the Springbok. Mandela arrived having heard of the decision and urged them to think again, making clear that his choice was to keep the colours and the emblem despite their association with the previous apartheid state.  The vote was retaken and the strip and emblem remained.

Some of Mandela’s supporters obviously saw this as a sell out. However, he saw this as an opportunity to break the ice with people who were most certainly not his supporters – indeed a chance to ‘liberate the oppressor’.

The gesture of turning up to the final dressed in the Springbok strip and a supporter’s baseball cap was one which he and only he as a president could have carried off. That was the moment of apotheosis for his philosophy and at a stroke, the perceived threat of civil war and the fear of another Zimbabwe situation receded.

There wasn’t universal acceptance of him at that moment but he certainly won over thousands of sceptics as he gloried in South Africa’s victory on that day even dancing a victory jig.

Only his election made that day possible. South Africa had been banned from participating in the first two world cups in 1987 and 1991 due to the apartheid regime. Having facilitated not only their participation but also the hosting of the tournament, Mandela was entitled to the political benefit which accrued from it. The winning of that trophy was the icing on the cake.

Although he later clashed with the director of South African rugby  Dr Louis Luyt, branding him a ‘pitiless dictator’ the mould had been broken. By 2005 there were nine blacks in the Springboks’ squad.

Important and symbolic though that event was, it was Mandela’s realisation and admission that the ANC had to drop its commitment to nationalisation which secured the economic short and medium term. He must have shuddered as he contemplated some of the other African countries living under faux Marxism. He realised that if the Rainbow Nation was to survive and prosper, the first step would be to grow the economy, held back for so many years under the sanctions and trade embargoes from  abroad.

It couldn’t have been an easy step to jettison his and his party’s political manifesto in the quest for a cohesive society. Again though, pragmatism won over ideology. He saw that imposition of some regimented collectivism of the type that was being rejected by the people in Esatern Europe and Asia would lead to a different but continued isolation for his country.

It didn’t stop him being political. It never stopped him fighting for equality and justice. He continued to do these things with the hard bitten determination he always had at the same time achieving so much more than if he had gone down the Mugabe path. He spoke out against international events which needed speaking out against. Things like the Iraq and Afghanistan wars for example.

The end of apartheid in South Africa resonated way beyond the shores of that country and continent. Before the release of Mandela there was a sometimes virulent racism in even the most democratic of countries. It hasn’t disappeared of course but it is much, much less in evidence today in the country where I live. Racism has been marginalised and is now the political football of the extremist. That is largely down to the man who took his long walk to freedom from prison in 1991.

A one minute applause before all football matches in Scotland would have been unthinkable to mark the passing of Margaret Thatcher earlier this year but yesterday that gesture was afforded to Nelson Mandela with enthusiasm. Maybe proof, if it were needed, that Mandela’s assertion that love is a more natural human condition than hate is indeed the case. He certainly practiced what he preached in that regard.

The greatest human being of the 20th century?

Very probably.

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