Gareth Evans remembers Nelson Mandela
Former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans was one of the first foreigners to meet Nelson Mandela after his release from prison. He pays tribute to the former South African leader.PT7M8S http://www.canberratimes.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-2yvoy 620 349 December 6, 2013
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In the 1980s there was already a magnetism about Nelson Mandela. His name was known worldwide even though he had been in jail for 27 years. What kind of man could achieve that reputation from the barren Robben Island?
I first met Mandela in Cape Town's Pollsmoor jail. I was with other members of the Commonwealth Group of Eminent Persons in 1986. He was a tall, spare man standing very straight with a steady eye. He was a person of natural grace and dignity.
A tribute: Nelson Mandela. Photo: Getty Images
We had come to see him to talk about negotiations between the African National Congress and the government of P.W. Botha.
He had some preliminary things to say, however. He looked at me and said, “Mr Fraser, is Donald Bradman still alive?” Later I was able to take a bat to Mandela, signed by Bradman, with the following notation: “To Nelson Mandela, in recognition of a great unfinished innings”.
Mandela then turned to Lord Barber, who had been Britain's chancellor of the exchequer in Ted Heath's government some years before. He said, “Lord Barber, I read somewhere that Prime Minister Thatcher said she could do business with President Gorbachev. Would you please tell her it would be very much easier and far, far safer to do business with Nelson Mandela.”
Nelson Mandela on the steps of the Sydney Opera House raises his fist for the national anthem. October 1990 Photo: Steven Siewert
His sense of humour was always near the surface. For some time before our visit he had had access to newspapers and magazines, but we were talking to a person who had essentially been cut off from the world for the best part of 27 years.
In winter it was bitterly cold. For warmth he had a blanket which, if you held it up to the light, you could see through. How could a man endure what he had endured without a sense of grievance or bitterness, without any sourness towards the world outside?
He befriended his jailers, who came to respect him greatly. He had a sense of charity to everyone. He did not harbour grudges about past injustices or wrongs, but was concerned only to find a way forward, how to build a better South Africa.
While he could speak openly about his personal views, there were limits to what he would or would not say. The Freedom Charter which had been negotiated in 1955 was out of date, almost archaic in some of its provisions. As we spoke to many people throughout South Africa and asked why it had not been kept up to date, made relevant to changing circumstances, the answer was always the same: how can we without Nelson Mandela?
When we asked Mandela what changes ought to be made, he said he could give only a personal view which might not be definitive because he would need to consult his colleagues. He had not had access to them in many a long year, but their views were very important to him. He had a very significant sense of due process and of respect for others.
At that first visit he knew that changes were afoot. His very removal from Robben Island to Pollsmoor indicated that the government wanted him to be in better circumstances. They knew that to find a settlement they would need Mandela.
It would have been so easy for somebody who had endured, as he had endured, to take the view that white South Africa should make restitution for the harm done for the past wrongs, for the great injustice inflicted upon the overwhelming majority.
To Mandela such views were looking backwards. The past had to be washed out of their hair. All South Africans had to look forward and they could only do that if they were to create a South Africa in which one law applied to all.
Was it realism that led him to this view, the knowledge of past mistakes? Or was it something innate, born in the very nature of the man that determined his attitude to other people? Perhaps both, but he knew what had to happen if South Africa was to find a way forward.
His sense of forgiveness and of justice was immense. His sense of equity was absolute. For Mandela politics was a matter of high principle and of steadfast purpose. He did not need polls or focus groups. He knew what was right, he knew what had to be done. If it was a difficult issue, if it needed persuasion, he would argue the harder, marshal his point of view and win the day.
He knew government was about the exercise of judgment, but judgment based on a basic respect for people who would understand if a good argument was put to them.
When CARE Australia had three of its employees jailed during the war in Kosovo, Mandela was one of the first people to whom I appealed. Can you please lend your weight, your influence to assist in their release? He did not hesitate. I believe he knew what I stood for and the work CARE Australia was doing, and that was enough.
How does one judge his place in history? Of all the people I have met, he was by far the greatest. I do not know anyone who could stand near to him. In the pages of history, there would be few who would stand as an equal.
Respect, concern, compassion a belief in the best of our natures as human beings was central to the way Mandela approached every problem. He was central to the process of change in South Africa. He unified the disparate groups within South Africa. Even the tribal leaders, such as Chief Buthelezi of the Zulus, followed Mandela. Black South Africa was able to establish a unified position in negotiations with the government.
President F.W. de Klerk had believed fervently in apartheid and sought to justify it on practical and philosophical grounds. It is a measure of de Klerk's practicality and acceptance of the need for change, but also of Mandela's greatness, that de Klerk came to believe that in a majority ruled South Africa there would be no retribution yet justice for all. Mandela was able to persuade de Klerk that white South Africans would have a legitimate place in the new South Africa. That was essential to the peaceful change that occurred.
Now South Africa grieves, as does the whole world. We need to remember his achievements and his essential character, which made those achievements possible. We can learn from his example. He leaves a legacy that all subsequent leaders should seek to emulate.
Malcolm Fraser was Prime Minister of Australia from 1975-1983
Comments are open for tributes to Nelson Mandela. Please note, while his legacy may be the subject of debate, this is the time for paying respects.