What Mandela meant to me
Updated: May 26
What does Nelson Mandela mean to me?
Why does his passing mean so much to me on a purely visceral level?
Why are so many people cynical about his life and achievements?
Why can’t we have heroes? I wonder if this is generational.
I was lucky to grow up at a time when we truly believed that anything was possible.
We were inspired by idealists and ideals.
We believed we could Stop the War and Stop the Tours.
We did both.
We have also seen all our heroes debunked as details of their lives have been trawled over to prove that they had warts and plenty of them.
I’m not naïve enough to believe that any of my heroes were perfect. The thing is I’m not particularly interested in their sex lives, their eating habits, their table manners, their dress sense or any other bits of minutiae that might reduce them to mere mortals.
As a pre teen JFK was a hero and a God. I fell in love with Gandhi and was shattered by the deaths of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King in my last year at school.
At uni I led a small but active group who protested outside the Newcastle Rugby Club to “Stop the Tours” and travelled to Sydney to play my part in interrupting the rugby test to demonstrate that a cricket tour by an apartheid sponsored South African cricket team would be impossible to complete. We smuggled black South Africans off cargo ships to talk to us about apartheid, we listened to black leaders from South Africa but we only had a passing knowledge of Nelson Mandela.
Before long we learnt about this extraordinary man’s struggle on Robben Island. We realised that our seemingly insignificant efforts did, actually, matter. We learnt about Nelson Mandela and he came to represent everything we aspired to be.
He became my hero.
When he came to Australia I made what seemed like a pilgrimage to the Opera House to see him speak. And I wept. Nelson Mandela came to symbolise everything that was important to me. His extraordinary tenacity in the face of impossible odds, his understanding of the complexities of human existence, his ability to embrace everything from politics to sport and, perhaps most importantly, his ability to forgive. He was a God. In the Ancient Greek sense of the word.
Inevitably, I grieved over his death as I would grieve over the death of one of my family. So I have been perplexed by the implied, and stated, criticism of him and what he represented. The main thrust of this seems to be about Mandela’s association with violence. He was involved in an armed struggle with a regime that took its inspiration from Mein Kampf.
Does anyone seriously think it was wrong for black South Africans to take up arms against apartheid? My father took up arms against the Nazis. He was a peaceful man who abhorred violence but left his farm to travel across the world to fight against fascism. He had no choice. Nor did Mandela.
His passing leaves us poorer but also richer.