Sajid Javid is Financial Secretary to the Treasury and MP for Bromsgrove
I was one of the millions who watched a smiling Nelson Mandela walk free in February 1990, having served twenty-seven years in prison. I still feel goose pimples when I remember it. That year I turned 21. The economy was booming, and the Berlin Wall had fallen only three months earlier. As a young brown face among white ones, I had experienced isolated incidents of racism even in our open and tolerant country. But to have to live in a state where racism was state-organised was, for me, unimaginable.
The silenced giant was about to speak. Expectations were fervent. When he did speak he was, for South Africa, a saviour figure: someone who was going to save the country from civil war or who offered as Niel Barnard, the then head of South Africa’s Intelligence Service called it, “the Ayatollah factor”.
For South Africans in the era of apartheid, peaceful settlement appeared a misguided hope. Black and Asian people endured cruel and barbaric treatment, held in the eyes of the law to be inferior. Many white South Africans had been indoctrinated into the belief that the non-white citizens of their own country were simply lesser beings. Out of fear of ostracism or simple ignorance, they either silently consented or actively participated in apartheid. By the 1980s, society burst – and South Africa descended into civil war.
Aware of the chaos gripping his country, but powerless to prevent it, was Nelson Mandela. He realised that the only way out for South Africa was reconciliation; and reconciliation needed understanding. From his cell, Mandela used his charm and charisma to win over the respect of his jailers. He became a friend to several, even godfather to the son of one. Speaking to them in Afrikaans and taking great trouble in learning about their interests, he put them at ease. Once outside, he brought together two cultures, broken by years of conflict, and showed them how to look on each other’s differences not with suspicion, but with curiosity and compassion.
On entering the South African Parliament for the first time as President, MPs rose to their feet and cheered. Mandela broke with protocol, crossing over to the leader of the far-right Freedom Front. With a warm smile he shook his hand: ‘I am very happy to see you here, General.’ In just five years as President, the man the whole country now called Madiba had begun to piece a once-broken society back together as the ‘Rainbow Nation’. His most fearsome critics were disarmed.
Though clearly a pragmatist, Mandela was inclined towards socialism and his movement, the ANC, had close ties to the South African Communist Party. Despite this, those on the right should warmly embrace Mandela because his primary achievements were freedom and liberty. It is these very values that conservatives the world over stand for. He achieved these not with violence but, like Gandhi, with sheer power of personality.
Mandela was not just the champion of minorities, nor South Africa’s first black President. He was a healer. Having endured the indignity of prison for nearly three decades, he walked free to teach his country, and the world, that the real path to peace comes from understanding your neighbour. Britain has long embraced this creed. But those who are tempted to fall into misunderstanding and suspicion need only look to Mandela to realise that there is a better way. Today, South Africa still faces many challenges. But, it is a vibrant, proud, nation and a beacon of liberty in a troubled continent. This is the legacy of Nelson Mandela.