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Singing Free Nelson Mandela: Why he mattered to Australia

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Meredith Burgmann

Meredith Burgmann meeting Nelson Mandela.

Meredith Burgmann meeting Nelson Mandela. Photo: Supplied

As the world mourns Nelson Mandela, I am not the only ageing radical in Australia to particularly feel his passing.

My own few moments of basking in his charismatic glow occurred in 2000 when he visited the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at Sydney University. In my capacity as President of the NSW Legislative Council (and a long time supporter of the Centre) I welcomed him and sat beside him during the presentation of awards to Faith Bandler and Stella Cornelius. I had long thought about what I would say to Madiba if I was ever to meet him. I would tell him how a poster of his face was stuck on my office wall for almost 20 years, how I had attended endless vigils singing Free Nelson Mandela and how I had sacrificed almost a year of my life (and certainly a pass in History 101) to the "Stop the Springboks" cause.

But, in the circumstances, all I could come up with was "Welcome Mr Mandela" and something along the lines of "glug glug glug". My lips just didn't seem to work properly.

Why is Nelson Mandela so important for our generation? The Vietnam war and the anti-apartheid movement were the twin issues which formed our political views and activities in the 1960s and 1970s. Why was the anti-apartheid struggle so important for Australians? Because we were seen as apartheid South Africa's great white brother across the sea. We spoke the same language, had conservative governments, enjoyed the same outdoor activities and most importantly played the same sport. The great loves of white South Africa were our sports, rugby and cricket. (Many years later when Malcolm Fraser visited Mandela in his cell on Robben Island, the story is told that Mandela's first words were "Is Don Bradman still alive?"). The international anti-apartheid movement had decided that sporting boycotts were the best strategy for isolating the apartheid regime. Consequently the all-white Springbok tour of Australia in 1971 was watched by the whole world. The huge demonstrations across Australia, led by students, trade unionists and church leaders (and seven wonderful Wallabies who refused to play) interrupted the games, led to the cancellation of the 1971/72 cricket tour and stopped Australian-South African sporting ties for over two decades.

My part in the anti-apartheid struggle has given me a lifelong attachment to the great rainbow experiment which is the new South Africa. In 2012 I was thrilled to be one of seven Australians invited to attend the 100th of the formation of Nelson Mandela's party, the African National Congress (ANC). Sitting there at midnight in the small hall in Bloemfontein where the ANC had been formed was a truly emotional moment.

Nelson Mandela and the ANC have an extraordinary story. There is no other party in history that has shared its struggle with the rest of the world in such a way. We all know about Mandela, the Treason Trial, Robben Island, Albert Luthuli, Oliver Tambo, Sharpeville and so on - details that we would never know about other parties. This gives us a feeling of ownership about the "New South Africa" which is probably stifling for the present leadership.

But Nelson Mandela never let us down. It's easy to be perfect when you're in jail. It's when you get out and have to make decisions every day about how to build a country and build democracy that you start making mistakes, making compromises and getting things wrong.

But when Mandela got out of jail in 1990 he commenced a delicate dance with the old leadership that showed great strategic nous. I was really interested to read recently that he preferred Nehru to Gandhi. Nehru, the practical problem solver rather than the charismatic oppositionist, Gandhi.

As president he proved an astute nation builder. Who can forget the moment he walked out onto the field at the 1995 Rugby World Cup wearing a Springbok jersey? That was not just a great sporting moment, that was history. Similarly, who can forget the film footage of a newly elected President Mandela holding a tea party for the wives of the former Presidents. His charm and grace were remarkable. He had those old white matrons eating out of his hand in minutes.

But he wasn't just about style. In a continent which has not always been great about women's issues or matters of sexual preference, he remained a strong advocate for the rights of women and gays. He was continually stressing the importance of human rights and the rule of law.

However, probably his greatest political gift to the whole continent, not just his own country was his decision to retire after his first term in office. What he showed Africans was that there can be a peaceful transition of power and that retirement is a valid and proper political option.

Dr Meredith Burgmann was Co-Convenor of the "Stop the Tours" campaign in 1971 and was a Labor MP and President of the NSW Legislative Council.

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