The last week has seen Australia and the rest of the world rocked by the death of Nelson Mandela, former freedom fighter and leader of South Africa. Although not entirely unexpected, it seemed to come suddenly on Friday, although judging by the way that network television reacted, they had had their packages ready for months. And I guess that’s fair enough. Now, I’m no expert on the history of South Africa or apartheid or international relations between South Africa and Australia, but I do think that there are a few really interesting contradictions that have come to light.
Not surprisingly, many world leaders made statements about the importance of Mandela, and the fact that we will not see his like again. Indeed, Obama’s comment about Mandela now belonging to the ages seems to have got lots of airtime. What I find interesting is considering how people’s opinions appear to have changed: for example, Tony Abbott is supposedly on record as having claimed that Mandela was a terrorist – and he toured South Africa as a Rugby player when he was at Oxford, in direct challenge to the apartheid sanctions, according to something I read on twitter. Whether that’s true, I’m not sure. Another conservative leader, David Cameron, was part of a group that called for his execution in the 1980s. Again, I’m not sure if that’s true, but there are plenty of people around the world that were only too happy to speak about how incredible a person Mandela was in 2013, who had very different opinions when he was locked up in the second half of the 20th century.
And I think that’s illustrative – of a couple of things, at least. Firstly, and it hardly needs to be said, it shows us how politicians always blow with the prevailing wind. When they thought there was mileage in the fact that Mandela was a terrorist, then he was a terrorist. Now that public opinion has shifted in a more positive direction, well, then , there are benefits from acknowledging the man’s greatness.
The more interesting point, I think, is that we are seeing an example of historical revisionism in process. As far as I understand it, Nelson Mandela, in his early years, was what we would now call a terrorist. Shortly before his training, he was undertaking training in guerrilla warfare – things that in Australia today would lead to a lengthy prison sentence. Of course, we now recognise that Mandela was fighting against institutionalised poverty, racism and oppression, but many terrorists today would make the same claim. I guess the ultimate difference is that, after so long in gaol, Mandela was vindicated. I think the really interesting part is the way that he changed after his imprisonment. Now, whether the tide of change had arrived or not, Mandela talked about peace and reconciliation – rather than revenge. I hope it is for this that he will be remembered, rather than the violence of his early years.