Senate debates

Monday, 9 December 2013


Mandela, Mr Rolihlahla (Nelson) Dalibhunga, AC

3:35 pm

Photo of Eric AbetzEric Abetz (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Minister for Employment) Share this | | Hansard source

by leave—I move:

That the Senate records its deep regret at the death on 5 December 2013 of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela AC, former President of the Republic of South Africa, places on record its acknowledgement of his role in the development of the modern South African nation and tenders its profound sympathy to his family in their bereavement.

As the people of South Africa hold a day of prayer to give thanks for the life of His Excellency Nelson Mandela, so this parliament and Senate rightly pause as well to pay tribute and give thanks for the life of a great man. As the South African people express sorrow on his passing and at the same time give thanks for his contribution to their country, we in Australia do the same not only for his leadership in South Africa but also in the world. Whilst a great ocean separates our two nations, it is the same water that laps both our shores. So it is with the sentiments that saw bipartisan support in Australia against the scourge of apartheid in solidarity with the aspirations of the people of South Africa.

Australian prime ministers of all persuasions sought to do their bit to achieve that which Mandela so masterfully achieved. On my side of politics I note the contributions—and I also note that prime ministers on the other side did similar things—of the Rt. Hon. Malcolm Fraser and the Hon. John Howard, whose governments saw the granting of an honorary Companion of the Order of Australia to His Excellency Mr Mandela in 1999. This was something in which I was delighted to play a very small part. It was a former law professor of mine from the University of Tasmania, Professor Norman Dunbar, who suggested that we should write to then Minister Downer with that suggestion, and that correspondence was written a year before the honour was granted. The citation read:

For service to Australian-South African relations and his outstanding leadership to bring multiracial democracy to South Africa.

His walk to freedom was long, it was windy, it was full of obstructions—all of which were overcome by his resilience, his commitment and his belief in the equality of all races.

To me the greatest virtue, amongst many, of the man was his embrace of reconciliation over retribution. Another virtue, a close second, was his humility. Acknowledging his own human frailties, he fought against hagiography. He never wanted to be an icon or a saint. In his own words, he was 'just a sinner who kept on trying', which of course places him in the great biblical pantheon of the likes of Judah and King David. His willingness to reach out and acknowledge that the future of which he dreamed could be achieved without violence, without anger, without retribution was revolutionary in itself. It is because of these qualities that Nelson Mandela has rightly been described as the most significant figure of the century.

No individual life more fully embodied the grand themes and great struggles of the 20th century than that of Nelson Mandela. The story of the 20th century was that of the rise of oppressive ideologies and systems of government, the heroic struggle against oppression by millions of people throughout the world and the ultimate triumph of the ideals of liberal democracy and political equality. Nelson Mandela personified that triumph. The measure of Nelson Mandela's greatness was in the way he led his own political movement towards the path of inclusiveness and reconciliation following his release. Whilst others may have sought retribution, Mandela championed tolerance and forgiveness. In 1990, soon after his release, he famously told those who would seek to perpetuate conflict in South Africa to 'take your guns, your knives, and your pangas, and throw them into the sea!'

Nelson Mandela's influence will endure well beyond South Africa, as the values he lived are universal human virtues to which we can all aspire: courage, perseverance, humility and forgiveness. In his statement opening the defence case at the Rivonia Trial, he said:

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 will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to see realised. But, my lord, if needs be it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.

He was granted the great privilege of going to his maker seeing his hope fulfilled and his hope realised—something which neither Moses nor Martin Luther King Jr was granted. Generations of South Africans will forever be indebted to him, and generations world wide will glean inspiration from his example forever.

On behalf of the Australian government and the Australian people, I extend our nation's sympathy to the immediate family of His Excellency Nelson Mandela and also to his South African national family on his passing but invite them to celebrate his long life and his revered place in history, which will stand over the centuries.

3:42 pm

Photo of Penny WongPenny Wong (SA, Australian Labor Party, Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise on behalf of the Australian Labor Party to support the condolence motion moved by Senator Abetz. Mr Mandela himself remarked once that the names of only a very few people are remembered beyond their lives. Today, in this Senate, we rise to respect a man who is one of them—one of the few whose name, acts and words will be remembered beyond his life.

At this time, when a multiracial democratic South Africa has become something of the norm, it is useful to recall through the sweep of Nelson Mandela's life not only the extent of the struggle that he and his colleagues engaged in but also just how controversial at times the issue of Australia's relationship to South Africa and the apartheid regime was. Today, in preparation for this condolence debate, I read some of the contributions from former leaders, and Senator Abetz has mentioned some of them. I mention today the contributions of past Labor leaders and, in particular, make reference to the work of former Prime Minister Hawke. His contribution to the House of Representatives, I think in 1986, is a reminder of just how controversial the work of people who opposed apartheid and the work of those who wanted greater action in relation to South Africa was at that time. The then Prime Minister made this point about sanctions:

… concrete measures are the only way to fulfil our moral obligation as liberal democracies serious about the values of individual liberty and democratic rights. Apartheid is universally deplored but repugnance alone is not sufficient for its elimination. Vocal opposition without tangible measures is hollow.

He went on to say:

Make no mistake, change will come about one day in South Africa and it is a question of vital importance how it comes.

So this nation, through individuals and parties on both sides of the political divide, played a role in contributing to a democratic South Africa, and it is, I think, appropriate today to recall that, because it is important that we recall that nations such as ours have that obligation in the international order.

There are many things that we can say and that will be said today and beyond about Nelson Mandela. I want to start with a quote that I recalled which I think spoke so succinctly of his values. In Long Walk to Freedom, he wrote:

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.

Such wonderful words, such fine words—words which really exemplify the greatness of this man. He was great for many reasons. He was great for his courage and for his ability to bring his people together. He was great for his persistence and tenacity in the long years of struggle against apartheid. But, to me, one of the greatest examples of the measure of this man was the way he approached the task of building a democratic South Africa, and that, as my colleague Senator Abetz said, was that he spoke to his people and said, 'Put away your swords.' We in this place, in a very, very small way, understand at times populist politics. We understand that the people who elect us often want us to do and say certain things. I would ask, with that very small understanding that we have as people who have the privilege of being elected to this place in a peaceful, democratic Australia: imagine saying, as a leader, to the families, to the parents and grandparents, of those who had lost their lives in the struggle against apartheid, 'Vengeance is not the path we shall take. We will take a path that is about reconciliation and peace.' I think that path that Nelson Mandela took is one of the most extraordinary examples of ethical leadership, of human leadership, of leadership of humanity, that we have been privileged to see—because it is an enormously hard thing in our personal lives to step away from the desire for retribution; it is an even more extraordinary thing as the leader of a nation to encourage so many to do the same thing and to take the same step.

All of us in this place have our stories about our engagement with the anti-apartheid movement—and I hope many senators will take the opportunity to make a contribution with respect to Mr Mandela tomorrow night—but I wanted to make a couple of comments about key moments. I am sure all of us will recall the day he was released, all those of us who are old enough to remember—and I suspect we all are. I recall as a young activist and as someone for whom racism had had such a personal bent being enormously moved by the story of Nelson Mandela and the many other activists, including fallen activists, in South Africa. I recall, as I am sure many here can recall, going to various events, joining various movements, in support of and in solidarity with the ANC. Australia has a long history of that, and there would be people in this place who would be able to speak in great personal detail about some of the actions which were taken in the seventies and the early eighties. But I will never forget sitting and waiting for the footage of him walking out. I will never forget that, because it was such a triumph of not only the human spirit; it was a triumph of good and peace and solidarity over division and hatred and prejudice. It was a triumph of the international community, over time, working with those who struggled in South Africa to deliver an outcome where the very regime which sought to imprison this man had to release him—one of the most extraordinary moments, I think, of the last century, and it happened in most part because of the man whom we honour today.

I think Senator Abetz was right when he said that, in many ways, Nelson Mandela was the greatest figure of the last century. The measure of the man is not only in his actions, not only in the history books, but also, I think, in the words to which we will continue to return in years to come. We all know of such words, like Martin Luther King's 'I have a dream' speech and many of the statements by Gandhi and others, that we return to at times as people interested in democracy and as members of the family of humanity. I believe that Nelson Mandela will be remembered for so much, but, most importantly, he will be remembered through our returning to the things that he said because they provide such wisdom and cast such light even on today. I close with one of those quotes:

What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead.

On behalf of the Australian Labor Party, I join with others in the Senate chamber in expressing our profound sympathy to Mr Mandela's family and friends and, of course, to the South African nation.

3:52 pm

Photo of Christine MilneChristine Milne (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise today to support the motion and, with others in the Senate, to celebrate the life and pay tribute to the achievements of Nelson Mandela. He was a great leader, a freedom fighter and, of course, the President. The days since his death have shown how many people around the world have been inspired by his courage, by his commitment and by his personal sacrifice. His achievements are a testament to the power of resistance and grassroots engagement. As Aung San Suu Kyi has said:

He was a great human being who raised the standard of humanity. He stood for human rights and equality and he made us all understand that we can change the world.

As Senator Wong has just quoted:

What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead.

Those words are the best way to sum up his life because he did make such a difference to the lives not only of people in South Africa but also of people throughout the world. He dedicated his life to ending the dispossession of black South Africans under apartheid.

We cannot truly reflect on his life without also confronting the history of apartheid in South Africa. When Nelson Mandela first joined the African National Congress in the 1940s, the organisation was regarded as a terrorist group, a label it would struggle against for decades. When the ANC was outlawed in the 1960s, he travelled throughout Europe and Africa to build support for the anti-apartheid movement. Shamefully, Mandela received little in the way of institutional support. When he returned to South Africa, he and other senior ANC figures were charged with sabotage in an effort to marginalise the anti-apartheid movement. At the 1964 trial, which found him guilty, he made a strong statement describing his vision for democracy in South Africa, and it was the statement from which Senator Abetz quoted earlier. He said at that time:

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 to live for and to see realised. But, my lord, if needs be it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.

People do not understand the context of those words. He was facing the death sentence when he stood up and said that. His lawyers told him not to, that it was too great a risk to stand up and say what he was fighting for, but he was prepared, as he said, to face the death sentence were that to occur. As happened, he was sentenced to life imprisonment and for 27 years he spent the best part of his life in prison, smashing rocks for a long part of that time. He was allowed a visitor once every six months. It is very hard for any of us to imagine for a moment what it would be like to live through that. We have to pay tribute to the Red Cross because during that time they visited consistently, as indeed they do for prisoners all over the world. Nelson Mandela said he always knew when they were coming because he was allowed out, not to work that day but to meet with them, and that they gave him some comfort and joy through that time.

Those words, which he spoke in the trial, were his last public words until he was released from prison on 11 February 1990. Like Senator Wong, I remember that day very well and watching on television when he first walked across what appeared, as I recall, to be a bridge. The reports of the day said that he was met with joy, with exhilaration and with apprehension. The apprehension goes to the very fact that how he responded at that time has determined the fate of South Africa. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu said:

Can you imagine what would have happened to us had Mandela emerged from prison in 1990 bristling with resentment at the gross miscarriage of justice that had occurred in the Rivonia Trial? Can you imagine where South Africa would be today had he been consumed by a lust for revenge, to want to pay back for all the humiliations and all the agony that he and his people had suffered at the hands of their white oppressors?

Instead, the world was amazed, indeed awed, by the unexpectedly peaceful transition of 1994, followed not by … revenge and retribution but by the wonder of forgiveness and reconciliation epitomized in the processes of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Desmond Tutu also said that Nelson Mandela was 'the undisputed icon of forgiveness and reconciliation. We thought enemies could become friends as we followed Madiba on the path of forgiveness and reconciliation.' That was an absolutely extraordinary thing that he was able to achieve. During the time he was in prison, work was going on around the world seeking an end to apartheid.

We in Australia can be quite proud of the actions taken by Prime Minister Fraser and by Prime Minister Hawke and I pay tribute to Bob Hawke's efforts with respect to his idea of divestment It was Bob Hawke who came up with the idea of going to the world's bankers, which were essentially holding up the South African economy, and getting them to actually act against apartheid and, in fact, one of the finance ministers in South Africa at that time said that that divestment campaign was the dagger that finally immobilised apartheid. So that is really a very significant contribution and when Nelson Mandela came to Australia, after he was released in 1990, he made that point while he was here, that one of the reasons he came was the role that Australians, and Bob Hawke in particular, had played in bringing an end to the apartheid regime.

But it is also worth remembering—as at the end of a long life people now stand and pay tribute to Nelson Mandela—how hard it was for him during those years and for the people who supported him and also the number of people who died in the struggle. It was a very strong and horrific struggle against the forces who were trying to bring an end to the apartheid regime. You only have to look at the response in the United Kingdom, where you had the youth wing of the Conservative Party bringing out their infamous Hang Mandela poster and you had Margaret Thatcher at the time saying that Mandela and his supporters were 'living in cloud cuckoo land in' for believing that he might lead South Africa someday. Ronald Reagan also fought against the international divestment effort and it is interesting that Nelson Mandela's name remained on the terrorist list, in terms of the Americans, and was not removed until 2005. So, looking back on his life, I note he certainly had every temptation to behave differently than he did in terms of forgiving his enemies and calling for truth and reconciliation and for a moving-on in South Africa.

As for my own experience, I never had the honour of meeting Nelson Mandela but I did have the enormous privilege of sitting in a room when Nelson Mandela addressed the World Parks Congress in 2004. He stood up there and said:

A sustainable future for humankind depends on a caring partnership with nature as much as anything else.

He made a very strong statement about his connections with the natural world. In that same speech he went on to talk about the importance of youth and he said:

Without the involvement of the youth, the future cannot be secured.

I am hoping that now, with his death and the enormous outpouring of love for him in South Africa and around the world, young South Africans will be inspired by his message of peace and reconciliation and forgiveness and will go on in the same manner in which he led them. He also said this statement, made outside the Australian Education Union offices, where he talked about education as 'being the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world'—and I know that is something that Nelson Mandela often talked about in South Africa with young South Africans. So, on behalf of the Australian Greens, I certainly want to convey our condolences and very best wishes and thoughts to Mr Mandela's family and to the people of South Africa but also to people around the world who are oppressed, to whom we say: never give up and be inspired by the life, courage and optimism of Nelson Mandela.

4:03 pm

Photo of Nigel ScullionNigel Scullion (NT, Country Liberal Party, Minister for Indigenous Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to support the motion. There have been a great many things said about someone who was truly great—a great leader and a great activist; a legend. The danger is, however, that we and history lose sight of the fact that Mr Mandela, as he was born, was an ordinary man who through his efforts did extraordinary things. In his humble way, he once stated:

I was not a Messiah, but an ordinary man who had become a leader because of extraordinary circumstances.

Whilst I agree that the    circumstances were indeed extraordinary, it was Mr Mandela's choices as an ordinary man that really made him anything but ordinary. That is the legacy that he leaves behind: believing in something and continuing to pursue those beliefs, even at an extraordinary cost to himself—and that is what made him great.

It was an ordinary man who suffered in prison on Robben Island, who must have had moments of doubt, who must have been wondering whether it was all worthwhile during what could only have been described as a lonely and desolate time in his life. As the years dragged on, he refused offers of release because they were subject to conditions that he could not accept. No doubt, like ordinary men, he would have questioned his position and whether the overall goals were worth the loss of life and uncertainty that characterised South Africa at that stage.

Born in 1918 in the Transkei region, Mr Mandela's early years were spent herding cattle. At the age of nine he moved to his uncle's home but he moved away because he did not want the destiny that others had mapped out for him and he chose an education. He was the first member of his family to go to school, and one of his teachers gave him the name, Nelson. Mr Mandela, against this background, went on to study law, qualifying in 1942. In 1944 he became part of the active resistance to apartheid after the National Party, which was dominated by white, Afrikaans-speaking South Africans, came to power in 1948. His views were seen, however, as treasonable.

It should not be forgotten that Mr Mandela committed his presidency to pursuing national reconciliation, delivering a new constitution among wider legal and social reforms. Importantly, he established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which spent two years hearing the stories of those who were persecuted under the former regime and amazed the world by offering amnesties and forgiveness to those of their persecutors. As a president, Mr Mandela also had his detractors. His attempts to engage the white South African population put a number of his ANC supporters and friends offside. Mr Mandela responded to not pleasing everyone all of the time by saying, 'It helps to make you human.'

I will finish by repeating that great slogan used by Mr Mandela himself: 'The common ground is greater and more enduring than the differences that divide.' As our nation moves towards true reconciliation with our Indigenous peoples, let us never forget the truly great examples he set as an ordinary man, in the face of adversity and difficulty that would have broken many other ordinary men. Rest in peace, 'Madiba'. You have fought a great battle on so many levels and humanity will continue to pay tribute to you into eternity.

Question agreed to, honourable senators standing in their places.