April 16 2014 Latest news:
Friday, December 6, 2013
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.
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.