It was while walking down O’Connell Street on my first ever anti-apartheid protest in the late 70s that I first registered the name Nelson Mandela. Though vaguely aware before, it was when a friend and co-walker Catherine Moloughney began to chant ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ that I was led to find out more about Mandela and the cause he represented.
The urgency and the obscenity of the apartheid system was brought home later when then Bishop Desmond Tutu visited Ireland at the invitation of Afri in 1984 and told extraordinary stories about the reality of apartheid, like, for example, the fact that he had been refused permission to accept a previous invitation from Afri in 1982. Tutu’s great humanity, compassion and warmth was in itself the most stinging challenge to the odious system of apartheid.
Walk to freedom
Watching Nelson Mandela’s iconic walk to freedom in 1990 was like watching the world take a seismic shift. Mandela walked with dignity and pride and talked without rancour or bitterness – his only desire to build a new, just and inclusive South Africa for all its citizens. It was a moment when anything seemed possible.
I was walking again four years later on the Afri Famine Walk as Mandela preparing to be inaugurated as President in South Africa. The Famine Walk that year was led by Dunnes Stores Striker Karen Gearon and Gandhi’s grandson Arun Gandhi, both with their own strong links to South Africa.
The Dunnes Strikers, now finally getting the recognition they deserve, put actions on the many easy words of condemnation directed at the apartheid system.
Their strike courageously challenged the strange paradox of abhorrence and acceptance in which much of the world seemed suspended. My colleague Don Mullan and I departed from the walk for the inauguration at the invitation of Archbishop Tutu, who had also previously led the Famine Walk saying ‘we walked the Famine Walk and soon after we walked to freedom in South Africa’.
I arrived in South Africa to the most tangible excitement I can remember – a whole nation seemed to be swept up in a wave of anticipation, elation and colour. Everyone seemed to be walking and all going in the same direction, towards Union Buildings in Pretoria.
Mandela’s distinctive voice sent the crowd into near hysteria: ‘Today, all of us by our presence here and by our celebrations (throughout) the world confer glory and hope to new found liberty’.
And then the dancing began. Even for one who doesn’t normally dance, there was little option but to allow oneself to be carried along in the embrace of a liberated people, carried eventually back to a Soweto convulsed in song and celebration, where we remained until darkness fell and well beyond.
Regarding the greatness of Mandela there is little doubt and yet even such a great man was not perfect. I recall him once suggesting that South Africa should be a leader in the field of Arms exportation in Africa. But then again Mandela was no pacifist having led a guerrilla army – a fact that has been conveniently airbrushed out of much of the recent blanket media coverage.
In losing Mandela the world has lost a unique leader and global figurehead, one whose political life was clearly about serving the public good rather than personal advancement or enrichment. The long years of reflection in captivity had brought an insight, a wisdom and a mature generosity that is all too rare in leadership today.
But what now? What is most important now, rather than deify Mandela, is to honour his memory with an appropriate legacy. The greatest legacy would be to end the scandal of hunger in our world of plenty; to stop robbing Africa and countries of the South of their resources; to tackle climate change seriously and urgently; to take on the peddlers of death in an arms industry costing over 17 billion dollars annually.
It may seem like an impossible task but in his own imitable words:
It always seems impossible until it is done.
Joe Murray is coordinator of Afri, an Irish organisation that works for peace, justice, human rights and sustainability. Afri’s patron is Archbishop Desmond Tutu. You can find out more about Afri at www. Afri.ie. You can follow them on Twitter here.