Nelson Mandela: Shaker of Trees

Nelson Mandela’s middle name in Xhosa is Rolihlahla, and as his body is carried ceremoniously through?the streets of South Africa this week it is that name that will be at the forefront in the minds of many of us mourners who will line the route. Why? Because it means “shaker of trees”, which, in a tradition that stretches across the continent to the country? of my own childhood, Ghana, means “troublemaker”.

I think it is partly that which always caused him, whenever I was privileged to meet him, to want to know the detail, who was up who was down, in the cut and thrust of the battles which we wage in Parliament at Westminster. “Now young man, tell me what are they up to in that place?” He wanted to know what the Parliamentary tree shakers on all sides of the political argument were thinking. This too would have drawn him to the Square his statute now adorns, all those years ago in 1962, at?a very different time, with his comrade in arms Oliver Tambo, on their mission to seek support for their struggle. Macmillan wouldn’t see him. Hugh Gaitskill and Jo Grimmond took a more supportive line, and that was how the land lay in this place for many years when the sanctions Mandela called for were consistently resisted.

Bob, now Lord, Hughes led the anti-apartheid movement tirelessly and the Association of Western European Parliamentarians Against Apartheid came ultimately to enjoy all-party membership. Outside Westminster, Mandela’s ANC enjoyed a greater degree of support from the British people, not just from the Trade Unions but across the political spectrum, particularly in the churches and in later years in the City.

Nelson Mandela was, of course, appropriated by a world starved of visionary political leadership. The people to be seen this week paying their respects in Parliament Square are drawn from across the continents. Mandela the man however can only fully ?be understood in the context of his beloved Africa in general and South Africa in particular. He will be buried in the remote rural Eastern Cape amongst the Xhosa people who gave him that middle name. He was, after all, a fiercely proud Xhosa Prince, never broken, comfortable in his own skin, but never allowing its colour to define him.

This was a very special man. You knew it always in his presence. He knew it too. Once I recall a reference to President Mugabe: “Aaah Robert, yes Robert. Robert was a star in Africa, and then the Sun came out.” This followed by a mischievous chuckle left you in no doubt Who was Who in the pantheon of African freedom fighters.

The clarity and focus which shaped his own profound sense of identity never left him, enabling him to lead, from prison, his people to ultimate victory and reconciliation with those who had perpetrated such horrors upon them.

The world needed Nelson Mandela to give us all a sense of hope that however bad things get it remains possible for good to prevail against all the odds. The Long March to Freedom remains the definitive treatise ?on the triumph of the Human Spirit. The picture of the assembled great and good trampling over themselves to get him to sign their copy over a lunch in the Admiralty was a sight to behold. All pretence that it was for the kids was abandoned.

No one, however, related to the young?as he did. Visiting, as Patron of the Duke of Edinburgh Award, a youth prison in South Africa, he held the hand of a boy serving life for murder. ‘It won’t be easy’, he said, ‘but prison for however long is never the whole story. You too will have a life.’ The boy wept and the onlookers, including the Duke, never forgot that moment.

Many of us in Parliament wept too as Madame Speaker led him by the hand down the steps in the Great Hall for that memorable address to the joint Houses. We never believed we would live to see that day. But his first port of call after his release had been not to a palace or a parliament but to thank the churches for their solidarity at the HQ of the World Council of Churches in Geneva. I was there. He was a man with deep spiritual resources, but in no sense otherworldly. He was a tough, tactical, and at times quite ruthless politician. He understood the art of compromise, but had an irreducible bottom line of principle.

He loved life and music, as all who ever saw him move with a rhythm that belied his age in Hyde Park or in the Albert Hall can attest. He loved Winnie, who kept his name alive all those long years and Gracia who nurtured him in his later ones. It is not possible to separate him or his enduring achievement from them, or from the ANC movement, older than him. Oliver Tambo, his friend and law partner, and Walter Sisulu, his early mentor, provided the context in which he was able to operate politically throughout his life. Without?that he could not have presided over the transition from apartheid to a free non-racial democratic South Africa that is so much part of his legacy. Mandela, when asked to opine on the highs and lows of South African politics, would gently remind me and others that: “No one man is bigger than the ANC.” I believed him of course, but they didn’t come bigger than Nelson Rolihalah Mandela. Nkosi Sikelel iAfrika! God Bless Him! God Bless Africa!

This article was published in the House Magazine in December 2013. Thanks and recognition to the House Magazine and the Politics Home team for the copy and photography.

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