Lord Risby is the Prime Minister’s Trade Envoy to Algeria

It is beyond the rare that one man can play such a pivotal part in the history of his nation, and be so universally and uncritically acclaimed for this role. The injustices towards black people in South Africa, which had grown worse each year, could have propelled Nelson Mandela into permanent loathing and retribution. As he said after 27 years of incarceration “As I walked out the door towards the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.” It was F.W de Klerk, as South Africa’s President, who in 1990 ordered his release and the unbanning of the ANC, and initiated a process, possibly unique in history, whereby a distinct minority voluntarily and peacefully handed over power lock, stock and barrel to the majority.

By the 1980s, it had begun to dawn on thinking Afrikaners that apartheid was unsustainable. The order that apartheid was meant to create caused the reverse; the growing human disparity of numbers, the sheer cost of enforcing the system, the realisation that apartheid was simply naked racism and profoundly immoral – all of this happening alongside the country’s increasing isolation, whether economically or on the sports field.

Sensing the beginnings of unease and possible real change in White Afrikanerdom, in 1988 the ANC published its Constitutional Guidelines for a Democratic South Africa which included the following clause: “It shall be State policy to promote the growth of a single national identity and loyalty binding on all South Africans. At the same time, the State shall recognise the linguistic and cultural diversity of the people and provide facilities for free linguistic development.” Discreet contact with Nelson Mandela in prison moved the process on. In 1991, he became president of the ANC, and two years later received the Nobel Peace Prize. By 1993 he had become the country’s first Black and democratically elected president.

In substantial part due to his moral authority and credibility, the transition was miraculously free of much feared and forecast violence and bloodshed. An Afrikaans friend told me that, installed in the Presidential residence in Cape Town, and conscious of the anxieties of Afrikaners, Mandela appeared unannounced one Sunday morning in the Groote Kerk, Afrikanerdom’s mother church. In 1995, he donned a Springbok rugby jersey at a World Cup final. His unfailing courtesy and generosity of spirit brought healing to a nervous and apprehensive White minority. In a world where racial or religious friction blights so many countries, South Africa seemed to be a beacon of hope and success, and the world vocally acknowledged his unique role in this.

Of course there were setbacks too. His attempts to persuade Robert Mugabe to act differently failed. As I heard for myself one afternoon in Cape Town, he argued tenaciously to get proper recognition for the HIV/AIDS crisis in the country, which took the life of his son. His successor Thabo Mbeki had simply refused to acknowledge the extent of the problem. Mandela tried, with mixed success, to bring about political settlements in violent situations in various parts of Africa.

More latterly, he increasingly withdrew from public involvement, but somehow his very presence continued to bring assurance to his fellow countrymen.

As to his legacy, many in the country now talk of the loss of a moral compass, of poor governance, of corruption and cronyism, of damaging trade union activity and weak economic growth, resulting in high crime and unemployment. Yet there remains entrenched an independent judiciary, a vibrant press, strong civil society structures and constitutional underpinnings, and a more self-confident and highly critical Opposition to the dominant ANC.

He was indisputably regarded as the father of the new nation. Those of us who have either lost one or two parents will know that it is a real wrench, no matter what the circumstances of the death were. But, beyond the immediate shock and emotional outpouring, it is likely that his passing will produce more talk of a fading moral compass in that beautiful country.

Six years ago a statue of him was put up in Parliament Square. He was thrilled. So should we be. It is right that he stands near to Lincoln and Churchill. This modest and self-deprecating man truly was one of the most exceptional people of our age and his place in history is deservedly assured.

39 comments for: Lord Risby: Mandela – the moral giant who transformed South Africa and was loved throughout the world

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