“It was perfectly obvious that he was going out of his way to make it clear to the Conservative MPs present that everything had moved on, and that there was no question of any recriminations” - North-West Norfolk MP describes his first meeting with Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela pictured during a state visit to Britain Nelson Mandela pictured during a state visit to Britain

Friday, December 6, 2013
5:05 PM

North-West Norfolk MP Henry Bellingham was part of a cross-party delegation which met Nelson Mandela just months after his election in 1994. He reflects on a man of great humility, dignity and magnanimity.

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The first time that anyone met Nelson Mandela was something they never forgot. I was no exception when I was privileged enough to meet him a few months after he became president in 1994.

I was a member of the first All Party Parliamentary Group to visit South Africa after the historic elections.

We went to meet him in Shell House, the headquarters of the African National Congress (ANC).

On the way to the meeting, the Labour MPs involved had an air of smugness, and they kept telling us that they had been on the right side of the whole sanctions debate, whilst the ANC had never forgiven the Tory Party for its support of the nationalist government.

However, as soon as we were taken into the president’s conference room, there was an air of warmth that was really quite remarkable.

Furthermore, as we went around the table identifying ourselves, it was perfectly obvious that he was going out of his way to make it clear to the Conservative MPs present that everything had moved on, and that there was no question of any recriminations.

It sounds like a cliché, but in this evermore sceptical age, it was apparent to everyone in the room that we really were in the presence of one of the few global heroes in our lifetime.

What was it that made Nelson Mandela great? It was his humility, his dignity, his magnanimity, and above all his forgiveness of his former oppressors.

Indeed, he concluded very early on that South Africa’s only hope of building a modern democracy was to persuade the whites that this was in their interests as much as the black majority.

There are dozens of examples of his amazing gestures of reconciliation; one in particular always strikes me as being unprecedented. This was when he appointed one of his former jailers, the former prison commissioner Jannie Roux, to be ambassador to Austria.

It is very easy to forget that South Africa was incredibly close to all out civil war. Indeed, I well recall one of my early visits in the late 80s when the then President P.W. Botha seemed as determined and entrenched as ever in maintaining the status quo.

It was through Mandela’s extraordinary forgiveness of those who condemned him to 27 years on Robben Island, that the country was able to avoid a catastrophic civil war and truly enter the family of nations.

Although I saw Nelson Mandela on subsequent occasions, my big regret was that he was not well enough to receive visitors during my three visits to South Africa in my capacity as minister for Africa.

On different occasions I met his wife Graca, a number of his sons and grandsons, as well as visiting the Mandela Museum.

This latter visit was towards the end of last year, and it reminded me, not just how privileged I was to meet one of the great men of our age, but also how different Africa would look today had he followed the course of so many lesser presidents in other countries in that troubled continent.

8 comments

  • Surrey Canary,could not agree more. Mr Mandela was one of the founders of the armed wing of the ANC. They carried out many bombings and were responsible for the many deaths and injuries to innocent people including children.

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    norman hall

    Friday, December 6, 2013

  • south Africa has changed for the better for the black community but is a more dangerous place for the white community . Around 60 whites are reported to have been murdered in june and july this year

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    milecross

    Saturday, December 7, 2013

  • in south africa between june and july at least 60 whites have been racially murdered . Welcome to the new south africa which is not reported by the british press

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    milecross

    Friday, December 6, 2013

  • Mr Hall, not only have you taken Canary Surrey's words and twisted them to your own satisfaction, but you show a profound ignorance of the horrors of the Apartheid regime, which systematically murdered and desecrated the black population of the country. I wonder how you might respond if your local council or government said that it was repossessing your home, and that you would be moved to a shack in Hackney Wick, in accordance with the Group Areas Act. I regret that I am not as compassionate as Nelson Mandela, who would probably have listened to what you say and given you a job as his PA

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    Bill Punton's bald patch

    Sunday, December 8, 2013

  • Charles Powell, Thatcher's Chief of Staff, popped up on the box to say that Mrs T had been 'misunderstood'... Norman Tebbitt and Terry Dicks weren't 'misunderstood', neither was she nor is norman hall: being an apologist for apartheid is beyond the pale: the sadness that could be seen in Mandela's eyes reflected the realisation that the men who inherited the presidency from him - Mbeki and Zuma - are moral pygmies: his sacrifice has not been in vain, civil war was averted, but S Africa remains a deeply troubled country

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    martin wallis

    Tuesday, December 10, 2013

  • I would say that if I was a Tory MP too. It doesn't change a thing about what the Tories said. It is just one small thing that helps make them the nasty party.

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    HappisburghHarry

    Friday, December 6, 2013

  • Am I the only one fed up with the stream of hypocritical politicians and world leaders saying how he inspired them, but actually did they ever try and emulate his qualities and characteristics in their own live? Obama was saying his bit giving me a vision of drones flying everywhere with 'peace and reconciliation' painted on the side as they drop their bombs or whatever. Hypocrites...

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    Surrey Canary

    Friday, December 6, 2013

  • Bet he wouldn't remember Bellingham. Desperate stuff.

    Report this comment

    DT

    Friday, December 6, 2013

The views expressed in the above comments do not necessarily reflect the views of this site

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