Senate debates

Tuesday, 10 December 2013


Mandela, Mr Rolihlahla (Nelson) Dalibhunga, AC

7:02 pm

Photo of Anne UrquhartAnne Urquhart (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Tonight I participate in the adjournment debate in support of the condolence motion for Nelson Mandela, the first president of the new South Africa. I acknowledge that at the core of his lifelong campaign for a democratic South Africa was a fundamental commitment and partnership with South African workers and their trade unions. Mandela remained the honorary president of the South Africa's National Union of Mineworkers until his passing.

I was a new organiser with my union when Mr Mandela's autobiography, A Long Walk to Freedom, was published in 1995. Before reading A Long Walk, I was a casual reader at best. But Mr Mandela's compassion and strength against the most insurmountable foe, coupled with his brilliant expression and great insights into organising his community, gave me a passion for reading and knowledge that I retain to this day. Almost 20 years later, and completing a 10-question survey with a work experience student for my local newspaper, for the question on who would you host for dinner and what would you cook them, my response was Nelson Mandela, and that I would cook him something in the slow cooker with my banoffee pie for dessert.

Simply, Mandela was one of the most influential figures of the modern world. There is no 'arguably' about it. Apartheid was ultimately defeated by a conciliated effort from the international community through sanctions, boycotts and concerted protest efforts. Long before the famed sporting boycotts of our rugby and cricket teams, the Australian union movement was pressuring Australian governments to force change, providing assistance to the African National Congress and its representatives in exile, and enforcing economic sanctions against South Africa.

A few months after his release from prison, Nelson Mandela travelled to Australia to personally thank Australian unions for their support. At the rally in Melbourne in February of 1990, unions presented him with a cheque for $50,000 to assist with the ongoing struggle, and Mandela's speech noted the four decades of support from Australian unionists. Wherever he travelled in those years after his release, he made a point of personally thanking those working people whom had campaigned beside him, despite being a world away. At a visit to United Auto Workers members in Detroit in June of 1990, Mandela, wearing a union jacket and hat stepped to the microphone and declared:

Sisters and brothers, friends and comrades, the man who is speaking is not a stranger here. The man who is speaking is a member of the UAW. I am your flesh and blood.

It was through their resistance that his country was now free from apartheid. In his speeches to workers he always made a point of reminding them that it was through their labour and their employer that their community benefitted. At an address to his union, the National Union of Mineworkers in 1991, he spoke movingly about how:

The international solidarity of workers of the world enables us to learn from each other, to support each other and strengthen our ties in the face of multinational strategies for profit maximization and exploitation.

This humble recognition of the international solidarity for the people of South Africa is often forgotten amongst his more fabled works on love and forgiveness.

Mandela's commitment to unions continued after his ascension to the presidency. At the 1994 Congress of South African Trade Unions, President Mandela opened his new ministry to the congress encouraging delegates to not pull punches in providing advice to the government. In his address he noted that urgent attention was needed to address conditions of employment, regulations on collective bargaining and the right to strike. He said that the kind of democracy South Africans want to build 'demands that we deepen and broaden the rights of all citizens. This includes a culture of workers' rights.' President Mandela understood that at the core of democratising South Africa was a need to democratise the workplace.

His life's work transcends any group, any category or any association. His was a brilliant campaign to rid the world of hate, to empower all to love, to forgive and importantly be proud of the part they are playing to advance humanity. Rest in peace, Madiba.