Columns

Finding our own Mandela legacy

CLAUDE ROBINSON

Sunday, December 08, 2013    

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THOUGH expected, the news of the death of Nelson Mandela Thursday evening still brought a great sense of loss to a world that embraced him as the most important statesman of the 20th century, but still embarrassed that much of what his life symbolised remains something to be pursued rather than a celebration of attainment.

Nelson Mandela was one of those extraordinary human beings that people all over the world can claim as their own. Many of us never met him, but that made no difference.

My personal Mandela moment was that Sunday morning in February 1990, in bed with my wife in New York city, watching a live television feed from South African Broadcasting Corporation showing the release of the great man from prison after 27 years.

The tears streamed freely because something long imagined was unfolding — Nelson Mandela walking down the street hand-in-hand with Winnie Mandela just as the great South African musician Hugh Masakela promised in his incredibly hopeful music from a land and a people where hope seemed in short supply.

I had spent most of the 1980s as United Nations bureau chief for the news agency Inter Press Service (IPS) covering the diplomatic efforts to offer international support for the on-the-ground struggle being waged against apartheid in South Africa itself.

I had covered numerous UN meetings, done scores of interviews with Johnny Makatini, the representative of the African National Congress (ANC) at the UN, and written countless stories and commentaries urging Mandela's freedom as an essential part of ending apartheid. But seeing him, leaving the prison — tall, erect, unbroken and wholesome — was unimaginable.

The twisted system of white racism and oppression imposed by a South African minority on the black majority in 1948 and brutally enforced over the years had been on the UN agenda at least since April 1, 1960, when the Security Council passed a resolution condemning the apartheid regime for perpetrating what would be forever etched on the human conscience as the Sharpeville Massacre.

In that event on March 21, 1960, police shot dead 69 black South Africans who were peacefully protesting against the policies of racial discrimination and oppression.

In August 1963, the Security Council took another important step by adopting Resolution 181 urging all states to cease the sale and shipment of arms, ammunition and military vehicles to South Africa; but this arms embargo was not made mandatory until November 1977.

One of the frustrations of covering the United Nations in the 1980s was that there was little further progress to bring the weight of global diplomatic pressure on the regime, as the United States and Britain often used the power of the veto to frustrate the sanctions effort.

In those days, the Ronald Reagan Administration in the US and Margaret Thatcher's in the UK insisted on what they called "constructive engagement" with the regime, saying that economic sanctions, including disinvestment by western transnational corporations, would hurt blacks most.

Africans and global opinion, generally, rejected this as a thinly veiled excuse to keep faith with a regime seen by Washington and London as a bulwark against communism, not just inside its own territory, but in neighbouring Angola and Mozambique which were trying to create independent states in the face of the chaos left by the departing Portuguese colonialists.

It is ironic that the same political class which opposed economic sanctions against apartheid South Africa, on the grounds that they would hurt ordinary citizens, have no difficulty doing the same against Iran now to force Teheran to abandon any ambitions of a nuclear weapon.

JAMAICAN LEADERSHIP IN ISOLATING THE REGIME

Even before gaining Independence, Jamaica — under the leadership of then premier Norman Washington Manley — declared a trade embargo against the regime in 1957. Jamaica was the first country to take that step.

Granted, trade between the two countries was small; but it was of tremendous symbolic significance that a small island, still a colony of Britain, could take such a principled stand and place itself in the vanguard of the international struggle against apartheid South Africa. That principled position has been upheld by successive Jamaican administrations.

In addition to economic sanctions, Jamaica was also in the leadership of the international effort to isolate South Africa from world sport.

Jamaican diplomats at the United Nations served on the ad hoc committee set up to draft an International Convention against Apartheid in Sports. In December 1977, the General Assembly adopted the International Declaration against Apartheid in Sports, and finally, a decade later in 1987, the Convention was adopted.

One boycott in which Jamaica did not participate was the 1976 Congolese-led African boycott of the Montreal Olympics.

That boycott was sparked by the refusal of the International Olympic Committee to ban New Zealand from the Montreal games because its rugby team, the Black Caps, had toured South Africa that year in violation of the embargo. South Africa had been banned from the Olympics since 1964 on account of its apartheid policies.

At the time, I was press secretary to Prime Minister Michael Manley and remember the agonising discussions at Jamaica House on whether to withdraw the team, which was already in Montreal when the boycott was called. It was too late. Jamaica's high hopes of a gold medal from Don Quarrie may very well have been part of the equation.

Twenty-eight countries, mostly from Africa, boycotted those Games, with Guyana — which had already participated in the opening ceremony — being the only Caribbean country to pull out its team.

We should also recall the strong condemnation by a wide cross-section of Jamaicans of the rebel cricket tour of South Africa by a team of West Indians led by Jamaica's batting stylist, Lawrence 'Yagga' Rowe.

Jamaica's role in the political and diplomatic process to end apartheid in South Africa has been internationally recognised.

In 1978, Michael Manley, the then prime minister, was among a group of eminent persons awarded the UN gold medal for distinguished service in the struggle against apartheid. Manley also led the Commonwealth Observer Mission to South Africa in 1992 and 1993 and again in 1994 to observe the first democratic elections.

Against a background of decades of Jamaica's principled support for the struggle of his life, it was not surprising that the year after he was freed — and even before he was South Africa's first democratically elected president — Nelson Mandela paid his first visit to Jamaica on July 24, 1991, to say thanks to the people of Jamaica.

In his address in Parliament, Mr Mandela gave thanks that he was able "to match the name with the face" of Mr Manley, whose name he had heard associated with a New International Economic Order, and also with the international struggle against apartheid.

In November 2009, the United Nations declared July 18 as Nelson Mandela International Day, in the hope that the date of his birth would be used by people around the world to perform acts of goodwill and decency to each other.

As nations and peoples around the world remember Mr Mandela, we should recall his words at his 1964 trial: "I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if need be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."

It is still to be achieved. Nations and peoples around the world must move beyond the piety of all the well-deserved superlatives to continue the struggle. Failure to do so is to mock our claims to being civilised.

kcr@cwjamaica.com

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