Senate debates

Tuesday, 10 December 2013


Mandela, Mr Rolihlahla (Nelson) Dalibhunga, AC

7:12 pm

Photo of Nova PerisNova Peris (NT, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to support the condolence motion for Nelson Mandela. I express my heartfelt condolences to his family and friends and to the people of South Africa. You have lost a friend, a leader and a mentor—a true father to your country and a shining inspiration to the world. Many people throughout the world have found inspiration in his life and his actions. I particularly pay my personal respects to Madiba, the eventual victor over the evil scheme of apartheid. To me, this will always be his greatest achievement. He was a fighter for freedom and a symbol of justice, equality and dignity. His personal sacrifice inspired people throughout the world to do all they could for human rights.

From the outset, he made his intentions clear. He did all that he could to show that he did not accept the way South Africa was governed. He set a clear path to show how it should be. His life journey is a man's triumphal march towards freedom, and, with that focus, he inspired millions of people to share that journey. He once said that the chains of the body are often wings to the spirit. He truly believed this and he never gave up his struggle. Whilst he was physically imprisoned for 27 years, he was never a captive. Inspired, he then became a dignified advocate for reconciliation. His own hope and refusal to be intimidated became a powerful weapon. When nothing else seemingly remained, it sustained him.

My personal experience of the apartheid regime goes back to February 1994, just two months before Mandela became president. I travelled to South Africa with the Australian Hockeyroos team. It was my first time to South Africa and it was a most memorable one. I knew little about the apartheid system apart from the fact that it institutionally hated black people, so I was quite nervous as we arrived. I knew there was election coming up, and we were scheduled to play a three-game test series.

I have always thought about the moral position on social inclusion in sport, and it is very clear that non-discrimination is an essential part of true sportsmanship. We should never be willing partners in perpetrating any system of discrimination. No discrimination should be allowed against any person on the grounds of race, gender, religion or political affiliation. A historic moment occurred that day in the first test as it was the first time a black South African was to play for South Africa. I did not really comprehend the full significance of that moment until much later. It was my 50th international match for Australia and so it was a personally significant day for me as well.

South Africa was new to the international sporting circuit because of the international sporting ban imposed during apartheid. We won that game, and at a reception after I got talking to the black South African player and became immersed in our conversation about the history of sport and the apartheid regime. One of my Hockeyroo teammates asked her about the ball boys and girls, who were all black kids dressed in white uniforms, including socks, shoes and hats. My teammate expressed her unhappiness about there not being a full mix of kids, as it was quite clear that having only black kids was not inclusive of all South Africans.

The black South African player said to her, 'Please don't be upset with this. It is an honour for us to be here.' I could not really comprehend what she meant was an honour—I thought it was just outright racist. But then she explained to me that she felt that in a country that had had no justice or freedom for black people for so long she now saw that there was an opportunity and a way forward, something that was previously always denied and totally forbidden. I remember that time in Johannesburg so well. There was so much tension around with the election looming. In fact, a car bomb had exploded near our hotel just days before we arrived.

Although the official end of apartheid occurred in 1990 with the repeal of the last remaining apartheid laws, the end of apartheid is widely regarded as having followed the 1994 democratic elections, when Nelson Mandela became president. It was an amazing and most historic and memorable time in my sporting career and life to be there during the final stages of apartheid. These memories lead me to believe that we must learn from the past in order to prepare for the future. It certainly was a time when I stepped into the unknown; and it is one of those experiences which have stayed with me and which I draw upon often.

What I had learned most from the tour was that black South Africans often simply had to accommodate themselves according to opportunities. It was then I learnt also that people have an enormous capacity for adjusting to their circumstances. Mandela's own 'long walk to freedom' has shaped South African history, from colonisation to apartheid to a democracy. His life assumed epic qualities; Mandela became a global figure, symbolic of the struggle for justice. For 27 years during his incarceration, Mandela defined the word 'sacrifice'. He fought and stood against racial separation and the ridiculous notion of white supremacy.

After that time in 1994 I did not return to South Africa until 1998, and then I travelled back annually throughout my sporting career from 1998 to 2001. I became friends during my track career with an Afrikaans South African woman who ran for South Africa. We spoke often about the apartheid system in her country that she had been born into. Heide spoke often about Mandela, about how he was an extraordinary man and an exceptional leader.

After my sporting career ended I travelled back to South Africa more regularly. Just last year I met Reverend Michael Lapsley. He was born in New Zealand and ordained in Australia. In 1973 he went to South Africa as a young Anglican priest, where he became chaplain to both black and white students at the very height of apartheid. He was elected as university chaplain in Durban in 1976, the year of the Soweto uprising, in which many black school children were shot and killed. He used this as a public forum to speak out on behalf of students who had been shot, detained and tortured, and was soon expelled from South Africa. He spent the next 16 years in Zimbabwe as a chaplain to the liberation movement in exile, and in April 1990, three months after Nelson Mandela’s release from prison, he was sent a letter bomb by the agents of the apartheid regime, disguised as religious literature. In the blast, he lost both his hands, the sight of one eye and was severely burned.

In 1993, after returning to South Africa, Fr. Michael became chaplain of the Trauma Centre for Victims of Violence and Torture in Cape Town, and in 1998 he formed the Institute for Healing of Memories. He challenges individuals and communities to move through a journey of healing towards forgiveness and reconciliation. Fr. Michael says of his own experience:

I have travelled the journey from being a freedom fighter, to being a healer. And in some small measure, my journey reflects the journey of South Africa. There was a time to slay the monster of apartheid. But now that we have democracy, it is time to heal, to reconcile, to rebuild.

I personally believe that when stories are heard and acknowledged, individuals feel healed and empowered. Through the deepest and most meaningful sharing, human relationships can be transformed and restored.

There is no easy walk to freedom anywhere, and many of us will have to pass through the valley of the shadow of death again and again before we reach the mountaintop of our desires.

This famous quote of Mandela says it all.

Each day that I was in Cape Town I passed by Table Mountain and always had Robben Island in full view. Together with my then husband-to-be we took a tour of Robben Island. The history of the island is just amazing. We stopped at one place called the Limestone Quarry, where prisoners on the island, including Mandela, came to work every day from sunrise to sunset. Although they were told that they were digging the quarry for limestone for the roads, this was not true. There was no use for the rock—it was meaningless digging. And so they did this for many years—many years of trying to break the men's spirit. They failed for most, including Mandela.

There is a cave in the wall of the quarry which they call 'the university' where the newly arrived political prisoners worked side by side with the old timers to mine stone. But at the same time they were schooled in ANC and South African history, political ideology and tactics. And it is where they planned for the future, for a free South Africa.

One thing I learnt from that day was from an ex-prisoner guide. He said, 'Thank you for coming. I ask you to acknowledge and respect our past. Please reflect on our history; take it with you. We have to build new bridges to reflect on the past, and do this so our children can walk over for a better future. Please pay your respect to the survivors and please spread the message of goodwill.'

We finally saw the cell Mandela was kept in, which was so small—no toilet and so cold. It was certainly an inspiration to visit the island. In fact, my husband-to-be, Scott, propose to me on Robben Island during that tour; it is obviously something I will never forget.

Finally, there is this poem called Invictus. It means 'unconquered, undefeated' and it is by William Ernest Henley, an English poet. Henley had written the poem in a hospital bed during a traumatic time after his leg was amputated. I am sure that he did not know that one day, many years later, his poem would deeply touch and save another great man—Nelson Mandela—who survived his darkest years to become South Africa's great leader.

The words were written on a scrap of paper, and he used the poem to empower himself and other prisoners. It is hard to believe that this one poem saved Mandela's life and perhaps changed the course of history for ever. The poem read:

Out of the night that covers me,

Black as the Pit from pole to pole,

I thank whatever gods may be

For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance

I have not winced nor cried aloud.

Under the bludgeonings of chance

My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears

Looms but the Horror of the shade,

And yet the menace of the years

Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll.

I am the master of my fate:

I am the captain of my soul.

I support the condolence motion for Mr Mandela. I am sure his life will continue to be an inspiration for many, many years to come.