Friday 6 December 2013

The Power of Reconciliation: RIP Nelson Mandela

When I was a very small child, my father wrote a book which contained a short chapter on Apartheid.  Both the book and my father were immediately banned in South Africa – which didn’t seem to have much effect on us, as we didn’t live in South Africa and had no immediate plans to travel there.

But it meant that my father became a minor focus for anti-Apartheid activists escaping from South Africa, and for other South Africans who came to view their country in a different light once they travelled outside its borders. As a result, I grew up hearing extraordinary stories of courage in opposition, of last minute escapes and daring subterfuge.

When I arrived at University, one of the first conversations I had was about the rights and wrongs of boycotting South African goods. And when I started work, I would walk every day through Trafalgar Square, past the South African embassy and see the handful of people holding their perpetual vigil outside its doors.

I remember almost weeping when, in April 1994, that handful of people swelled to queue that wrapped itself round the building, as ex-pat South Africans queued to vote in the first free elections in the country’s history.

Last year, I was privileged to attend the opening, on Mandela Day, of the Shakespeare: Staging the World exhibition at the British Museum, attended by Sonny Venkatrathnam who was a prisoner with Nelson Mandela on Robben Island for twelve years

The exhibition included the’ Robben Island Bible,’ Venkatrathnam’s copy of The Complete Works of Shakespeare.  The only other books allowed on Robben Island were religious texts, and in order to persuade the guards to let him lend it to other prisoners, Venkatrathnam pasted Divali cards over the cover and convinced them it was a ‘Hindu Bible’.  The book was passed among the prisoners and 32 of them annotated the text, marking passages that had particular meaning for them.

The book lay open at the passage from marked Julius Caesar by Nelson Mandela:
“Cowards die many times before their deaths,
The valiant never taste of death but once.”

When Nelson Mandela walked free from Robben Island in 1990, his image in the world changed.  For almost thirty years, no photographs of him had been permitted. The images of him we had all seen – on banners, on t-shirts, at every anti-Apartheid rally – were of a young man, an amateur boxer. In an instant, as he walked through those gates, that image changed.  He was older, much thinner, his hair beginning to grey.

But when he spoke, his image changed in a much more profound way – from a Freedom Fighter to a man who was able to forgive.  A man who could feel nothing but compassion for his oppressors.  A man who could hold his nation together through the power of reconciliation.

Today, the Rainbow Nation has lost its father. May they, and all of us, continue to walk is his light.

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