This morning I awoke to the news of his death, and I have spent some hours watching and listening to accounts of his life. One can only marvel at the strength and fortitude of a man who survived and overcame harassment, and 27 years cruel and severe imprisonment, who was finally released and who became President of South Africa, and who was largely responsible for the overthrow of the inhumane and savagely unjust system of apartheid. It is incredible and marvellous that a person can overcome injustices, imprisonment and persecution, and the attendant deprivations of family life and freedom, and retain such nobility and generosity of spirit.
Hail and farewell, indeed.
South Africa has always been of interest to me, because my father was born there, and lived there until his family returned in 1924, when he was when he was 13 years old. He wrote some memoirs fairly late in his life, and recently I have been re-reading them. He wrote that at that time Apartheid had not taken the rigid form it later assumed, although there were separate train carriages for whites and blacks, and blacks were required to carry passes signed by their employers. all this was evidently taken for granted. Whites were superior, blacks inferior. There were many more blacks than whites, and therefore it was essential to deny them a political voice, and the ordinary, taken for granted, civil rights.
When I returned to work after my first two children were born, the head of the section was a South African woman, who talked at length about Apartheid. She and her husband were relatively liberal. But I found her accounts of the system chilling and incredibly unjust. On small example sticks in my mind. Her husband came to Australia before his wife and children, and shortly after he arrived he became ill and was diagnosed as having tuberculosis. He was in a sanitorium for months.
I was amazed. How did he get TB? I asked. Was he not vaccinated? It seems he, and most whites were not vaccinated. Perhaps their servants were. But her husband was around the port area for a short time before his ship sailed for Australia, and he must have been in contact with black, and unvaccinated Africans. This was at a time when vaccination against TB was administered to everyone in Australia. South Africa has no such programmes. How did it come about that in such a rich country there were no mass vaccination programmes? Not to mention education and the vote.
In those years the apartheid and sport issue was very prominent, and we all debated the matter extensively. It was in the aftermath of the fight for civil rights for blacks in the USA, and it seemed incredible that segregation and denial of civil and political rights were so entrenched in South Africa.It is probably too early to say whether South Africa can be transformed to democratic and economic ideals: injustice and discrimination frequently endure indefinitely.
But we have been witnesses, albeit distantly, to the life and achievement of a truly remarkable man, who achieved in his lifetime, after years of struggle, imprisonment and suffering (which would have destroyed and embittered most of us) political success and transformation of a country, and who was able to take the long view, to forgive, and not to seek revenge. For him, his life and his achievements, we should all of us, surely, give thanks.