Friday, December 6, 2013

The world mourns the passing of Nelson Mandela

I woke this morning to learn that Nelson Mandela had died in his Houghton home at the age of 95.

I felt a hammer blow to my life.  Why should that be? I live a long, long way away here in Australia.

In  late 1986, I too began my Long Walk to Freedom.

I grew up in South Africa as the 3rd son of an immigrant English family. I did not know it at the time but it was a privileged upbringing. My father worked hard to build our future and to build the future of South Africans as an entrepreneur and as pioneer building new industries. I knew very little about what was happening in the country other than what the newspapers told us and the radio made us believe. There was no TV until 1975.  I was too young to know about Sharpeville but I do remember the outrage at the Park Station bombings and the headlines around the Rivonia trial in 1963 and 1964.

At the age of 18, I was conscripted into the South African Defence Force to complete 12 months of National Service, a full 10 years after the Park Station bombing and the end of the Rivonia trial. My role was to become a defender of the homeland as a soldier. It was tough being an Englishman in an Afrikaner army - the bullying bothers me to this day still. In that time I spent 3 months on operational duty on the Angola-South West Africa (now Namibia) border. Our role was more a role of "hearts and minds' with the local inhabitants than anything else as there was no insurgency activity in our sector at the time. I was lucky to leave the border zone before the South African invasion of Angola to intervene in their civil war later in 1975. The words of the song go "I was only 19" - I celebrated by 19th birthday in that zone. That was not the end of military service for me - I was required to continue doing camps for a further 720 days over the next 10 years. I did about half of those in training roles and in guard camp roles. For the most part, I kept deferring them by studying, first full time and then part time (though attendance at lectures was a requirement to win deferments).

I really started to notice what was going on during my time at the University of Cape Town - in 1976 the world we knew erupted with the riots in Soweto on June 16. The state of unease kept boiling and I do recall the day the South African Police broke up demonstrations on the UCT campus in 1978. I recall the strike by students in 1980 - I was working as a graduate assistant and was required to work - I seem to think the police were on campus those days too.  As each year went by, the pressure of life under the apartheid government seemed to build and the willingness to impose ever increasing levels of repression just seemed to grow. First we had to listen to John Vorster berating us and then it was the turn of PW Botha, wagging his finger while he did the same. As a lawyer, it was tough to see our freedoms being eroded every day - I can only imagine how it felt to be in the majority.  Come late 1986, it was becoming clear to me that my role as a solider was being changed from defender of borders to policeman in the townships.

What choices did I have? Do the camps. Keep studying. Refuse the camps. Leave.

As a lawyer I could not switch roles to repress a people whose rights were being repressed. I had already compiled 4 qualifications - studying was over. My friend Peter had already served 3 sentences in prison for refusing to do his camps - ten years in jail by the time he was 30. Not exactly top of one's ideal choices. I came home from work one day and told my then-wife that I had booked my flight out. I had already (in 1978) surrendered my South African citizenship in the offices of an officious Mr Viljoen in the Department of Home Affairs and prevailed upon him to grant me a return visa so I could leave.  I remember that meeting well - he says, "I can tear up your British passport every day" and I said, "I can walk to the British Embassy and get another one, every day". On February 13, 1987 I departed Jan Smuts airport headed to a new world with no job and GBP1,500 in my pocket. My 3 month deployment as a solider in Soweto to suppress the riots which were a daily happening was due to begin on February 14. My wife would sell the house and follow later. She would hand over my military gear at the headquarters of the Rand Light Infantry in Johannesburg. "Where is he?" "I do not know. All I know is he has gone" "Fine, sign here".

Little did I know was that the first meetings between the African National Congress and the Government had taken place in Lusaka, Zambia about the time I was booking that flight. Little did I know that talks about talks became talks and the journey to the momentous election of 1994 had begun as South Africa too began its walk to freedom.

I have been lucky to have been back to work in post-apartheid South Africa and to continue my contribution to building and rebuilding the country. It has been a revelation to see the changes in the society to a more tolerant society (especially among younger people).

Why then Nelson Mandela's passing hit me like a hammer blow this morning?  Was it the reflections of decisions made and opportunities missed? Was it the nagging doubt about the true legacy he has left in the country? Was it the fear for my friends and family who still live there? My life has been deeply touched by the changes in the country - Tim Chadwick dead in an accident in 1975 on operational service; Leroy Mbili studying by candlelight while I lived in luxury; Gen Holdridge (my mother-in-law) murdered in her house in Cape Town at the age of 93 in 2006; David Rattray (a school friend and a man of Africa) murdered on Australia Day, 2007 in Zululand;  Beresford Jobling (my best friend at school and my soul mate and a man rooted in Africa as a descendant of a British soldier and a Voortrekker leader) murdered on his farm outside Pretoria in 2012 followed in weeks by the murders of Anne and Shawn, friends of friends. There is a dark foreboding in Africa that lurks always.

I hope only that South Africans remember this day and forever the legacy of Nelson Mandela - a legacy of forgiveness and reconciliation, a legacy of courage and fortitude, a legacy of smiling and compassion and a legacy of the amazing power of the extended African family - everyone is your brother.

I salute you and I pray for your countrymen with a heavy heart.

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