Willie Rennie’s tribute to Nelson Mandela

This week, the Scottish Parliament paid tribute to Nelson Mandela. Here is Willie Rennie’s speech in full.

Like so many others, I saw today’s remarkable scenes from Johannesburg, with presidents and prime ministers, archbishops and cardinals, and village choirs and children from Soweto gathered in one place.

Nelson Mandela’s death was a moment that we all knew would come but, for most of our lives, we could only have dreamed that he would be able to pass on peacefully, in freedom and with the thanks of the world around him.

The vocation of politics to play a part in a changing world grew with me in the 1980s. At that time, we had the iron curtain in Europe, the cold war across the world and apartheid in South Africa. Then there was that brief, remarkable time, when Nelson Mandela was out of prison and president of South Africa; Václav Havel was out of prison and president of the Czech Republic; and Lech Walesa was president of Poland—three things that had seemed impossible just five years earlier. I can only imagine the impact on those individuals and on the people who had campaigned for decades.

First among those campaigners in the context of the Scottish Parliament was David Steel, who was a member of the Anti-Apartheid Movement—he became the movement’s president—from his first days in politics in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1986, when he was leader of the Liberal Party, he delivered the annual freedom speech at the University of Cape Town. He has written about that in the past few days, saying that the South African foreign minister, Pik Botha, refused him permission to visit Nelson Mandela and asked why the west was so obsessed with “this chap”. Within five years, he knew why. Nelson Mandela led a peaceful but fundamental change to democracy in South Africa.

We no longer hear the word “apartheid”, with all the evil, cruelty, division and injustice that was its true meaning and at the core of that rotten system. The world is a better place for that. Apartheid South Africa was almost alone in the world. We boycotted its goods and shunned its businesses and spokespeople. We can now be proud of the South African embassy in Trafalgar Square in London, but back then people went there only to protest about injustice and to demand Mandela’s freedom and an end to apartheid.

Mandela was a leader, a statesman and certainly an inspiration, but he suffered as a man. His daughter Makaziwe spoke yesterday, with something of her father’s uplifting manner, about how her father sought not just political but spiritual freedom. She spoke about how Mandela thought that if he did not forgive others he would remain imprisoned.

Such spiritual freedom has been a feature of these days of mourning. There have been personal stories of kindness. I was particularly moved by what Gordon Brown said on the radio a few days ago. He said that after his son was born he received a call, at home, from Nelson Mandela. It was not a routine call of congratulation but a call from a father to a father; an intimate call, from a parent who had lost a son to another who had lost a daughter—a human touch.

As Makaziwe reminded us, to her dad was given the strength that enabled him to be the champion of forgiveness and reconciliation. Mandela did not want the hurt that he had suffered to be part of anyone else’s life. Through his strength, he gave a future to the country of South Africa, which could so easily have failed. He also inspired reconciliation after other conflicts, not least in Northern Ireland, where many brave individuals have put their losses and tragedies behind them.

In captivity, Nelson Mandela inspired us with his struggle, and on his release he gave us hope across the world. Today, as we reflect on his life, he lifts us again, to work for a better world, where, as he said, we “close the circle” and

“herald the advent of a glorious summer of a partnership for freedom, peace, prosperity and friendship.”

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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One Comment

  • Thankyou for publishing Willie’s speech. As someone involved as a student Liberal in the late 60s, I helped organise a couple of anti apartheid events, and we had speakers from both the AAM and the Liberals of the time. I was going to question whether David Steel had had any involvement with the events in SA to honour Nelson Mandela’s life. As Willie makes clear, David was in the vanguard in the party in those days in fighting for the end of that hateful system. Peter Hain, of course, as the decade drew to a close, in those days, one of our foremost Young Liberal radicals, had personal experience of the system, and came to England having been forced out for being part of the struggle in SA itself.

    I was later to work for two years in Swaziland, and had up close and personal experience of apartheid in the 70s. It was always a relief and relaxation to return across the border into Swaziland (unfortunately it was sometimes necessary to go into SA). I think everyone who took a part in this struggle, in South Africa, where people put themselves in danger doing it, but also across the world. I am not sure that without worldwide support the regime would have gone, certainly not as quickly.

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