Nelson Mandela 2013

I commend the member for Lingiari for that powerful speech. It was wonderful to hear his personal accounts of meeting the late and great Nelson Mandela. I can honestly say what an honour and a privilege it is to stand here as an elected representative in this magnificent place, which is a symbol of democracy for our nation, to speak about a man who was a symbol of democracy, not only for his nation but for the whole world.

Few leaders are so significant that they transcend their country, but Nelson Mandela's vision of harmony resonated worldwide, and today the whole world mourns. As someone who developed a political awareness in the late 1970s and the 1980s, the struggle of Nelson Mandela against apartheid and for universal suffrage in a united democratic and non-racial South Africa was incredibly defining. It was the backdrop to my early political activism. I can clearly recall the anticipation and excitement of the moment in February 1990 when Mandela walked free. During the 1980s there were so many campaigns, by rock stars and others, that it became a universal campaign to free Nelson Mandela. For me that moment is as powerful and poignant today as it was 23 years ago.

I believe in many ways that Mandela faced as significant a challenge on the day he walked free as he did on the day he was imprisoned some 27 years earlier. Upon entering Robben Island in 1964, the challenges facing Mandela were paramount. While the anti-apartheid struggle continued around him, his days were spent working in a quarry, breaking rocks into gravel. With limited visitors, access to newspapers, letters and the outside world, the difficulty of staying in touch with the cause he had devoted his life to—and was prepared to give his life for— was enormous. On his release, however, the challenge was quite different—a great and moral one. After facing extreme adversity and oppression—27 years in prison and loss of liberty—his challenge was to turn the other cheek and to greet those who had created his oppression by denying his freedom for so long with forgiveness, peace, harmony and reconciliation.

This is the great moral challenge: when we face adversity we can respond in one of two ways—despair or hope, resentment or forgiveness. We can retaliate, we can seek revenge, we can seek vengeance; or we can respond in the name of harmony and reconciliation. I genuinely believe there are few people who would have had the strength to forgive as Mandela did; few who would have rejected the opportunity for revenge as he did; few who would have shown no sign of resentment as he did. I often ask myself: what would I have done had I been in his shoes? I honestly cannot say. I would like to know how I would respond to such adversity, but I honestly do not know. That is why this man is such an extraordinary and great man.

Upon leaving prison, Mandela greeted his well-wishers 'in the name of peace, democracy and freedom for all'. He said: I stand here before you not as a prophet, but as a humble servant of you, the people. Your tireless and heroic sacrifices have made it possible for me to be here today. I therefore place the remaining years of my life in your hands.

This certainly was a defining moment. I am proud to have been part of the Australian Labor Party and the Australian union movement, who stood by our friends in the African National Congress, the people of South Africa and the global movement to end apartheid. I am proud that our leaders like Gough Whitlam, Bob Hawke, Don Dunstan and Gareth Evans ensured that Labor in government took the lead in imposing sanctions on the apartheid regime. And, as the member for Lingiari mentioned, I am also proud of the unionists across Australia who fought hard, who mobilised to fight against apartheid and who sent messages of support to those across the ocean to let them know that the workers of Australia were standing firmly behind them.

I am proud that Australian Labor gave practical assistance to Mandela and the ANC in the 1994 election. When Mandela visited Australia following his release from prison, he told the tens of thousands who turned out to hear him speak that he could 'feel the solidarity of Australians and others for 27 years through thick prison walls'. Nelson Mandela was an international leader in reconciliation and democracy. He showed courage, compassion, integrity and hope through unthinkable adversity. He was not perfect and he was the first to admit that he was no saint, but what he inspires in all of us is that he rejected resentment and conflict in favour of reconciliation and forgiveness. We can all learn a lot from him.

The world is a richer and better place because of Nelson Mandela. He inspires us all to be better people. Farewell, Nelson Mandela.

Download a copy of this speech.

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