Speech at the opening of the exhibition ‘Nelson Mandela – From Prisoner to President’
Kilmainham Gaol, Dublin, Thursday 12 July 2018
A Theachta Dalaí,
A Dhaoine Uaisle,
It is a privilege for me to formally open this ‘Nelson Mandela Centenary Exhibition, From Prisoner to President’.
May I thank Commissioner John McMahon for his generous introduction, and may I take this opportunity to commend the Office of Public Works for providing such a fine example of public service through the protection and presentation of our heritage and our history.
This exhibition celebrates the life of Nelson Mandela. It examines the themes which define in many ways his life, as a Leader, a Comrade in struggle, a Negotiator, a Prisoner, a Statesman. It also highlights the strength, breadth and depth of Ireland’s relationship with South Africa, from Ireland’s support for the anti-apartheid movement which began with the brave efforts of principled opponents of racism, and evolved to become an agreed position by both Government and opposition. That support has a significant place among the foundation stories of the vibrant friendship which exists between Ireland and South Africa today.
The early pioneers in struggle, and in solidarity with struggle so deserve our eternal recognition and gratitude. I am delighted that Trevor Manuel, one of the key ANC figures involved in the fight against apartheid and in the governments of Presidents Mandela and Mbeki in helping to rebuild South Africa, is here with us today.
To the Irish who worked in solidarity may I say how heartening it is to see so many of you here tonight who worked, organised and protested in Ireland against Apartheid and in support of our South African friends. While we formally honour Madiba, tonight also recalls your contribution, individually and collectively, to righting one of the great wrongs of the last century.
We are assembled here in a gaol which holds a most important place in the history of Ireland’s long and unremitting struggle for independence. This place of incarceration and execution for so many of those who fought for Irish freedom, is a symbol not only of defiance and courage but of profound sacrifice, made not for any small or partial version of nationalism but for a generous vision of an enlarged freedom capable of encompassing all those seeking liberty and self-determination.
It is then most appropriate that this venue will now host an exhibition celebrating the life of one of the greatest champions of human freedom, dignity and equality of the past century.
Thinking about the connections between Ireland and South Africa and our separate but related journeys towards freedom and justice, it brings to mind an Irish saying that I find myself often returning to: “Is ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na ndaoine” which literally means that we live in each other’s shadow or, to put it another way, we rely on each other for shelter. Scáth means both shadow and shelter – our impact on each other can be positive or negative.
It speaks to me of the interconnectedness of the human experience, not only between those of us who share a nation or a continent, but the connections that can have global reach. The struggle for Irish freedom was one of a series of struggles for freedom that served as an inspiration to the peoples of other colonies to cast off the yoke of empire.
The struggles of South Africans to rid themselves of the tyranny of Apartheid reinvigorated the global quest for justice and equality and above all it addressed the poison of racism that based itself on little less than notions of lesser and superior peoples based on colour.
On his first visit to Ireland in July 1990 shortly after his release from prison, but before the shape of the new South Africa had become clear, Nelson Mandela recalled to the Houses of the Oireachtas how Ireland had given him something precious - hope:
“The very fact that there is today an independent Irish State, however long it took to realise the noble goals of the Irish people by bringing it into being, confirms that we too shall become a free people; we too shall have a country which will, as the great Irish patriots said in the proclamation of 1916, cherish all the children of the nation equally.”
In a complicated and violent world, that duty and responsibility for the generation, renewal and sustenance of hope is recalled, a hope which Nelson Mandela returned to us in his support for our peace process is a special legacy. His lifetime in service of that duty we honour tonight.
For all those in the Global North who opposed apartheid, and some came more slowly and later than others, Nelson Mandela, through his thoughts and actions, represents a moral fulcrum, a summoning to demonstrate our solidarity with the people of South Africa. The contours of his life, a life lived in the full glare of the public gaze, are so well known to those who sought to support his struggle, chronicled as they were by Mandela himself in his remarkable memoir, Long Walk to Freedom, but we are called upon not merely to indulge a curiosity but to accept a challenge – what are the difficulties of post-colonial transition, what new solidarities are called for?
There is a moral lesson to be drawn from the reluctance and hesitancy there was to condemn apartheid. It reflects what Seamus Heaney might have called ‘a collaboration of the silent’. In our times we cannot be silent on the absence of forms of international collaboration as would achieve what has been in the aspirations of so many freedom movements – justice, equality, real freedom, cohesion.
Nelson Mandela’s life was emblematic of the long struggle for freedom waged throughout what would be termed by Jawaharlal Nehru as the Third World, those newly independent nations that had won self-determination from the empires of Europe in the 1950s and 1960s.
Some who visit the exhibition may looking find it difficult to understand the confidence, arrogance, hubris, of the South African State in those times, and the brash manner in which it paraded ideas of racial superiority, confident that its loudly declared anti-communism would keep it enmeshed with the emerging post-war ‘Western Alliance’. It made progress in too many areas with that strategy.
The events of Sharpeville in 1960 demonstrated to the world the brutality and depravity of the apartheid regime – 69 people were shot by police while protesting against the pass laws, which were used to control and restrict the movements of non-white people. The state quickly imposed a state of emergency and banned the ANC, and in response to the repression, the Umkhonto we Sizwe was formed to confront the apartheid state directly.
It was when Nelson Mandela and nine of his comrades were placed on trial for sabotage in the Rivonia Trial that he first came to the attention of the world. Already imprisoned for so-called incitement, Mandela was tried in conditions designed to ensure a conviction and the death penalty – the court sitting was held in Praetoria, then the ideological heart of the apartheid state.
I can still recall reading the statement that he gave to the court on the 20th of April 1964 – it cannot be truly called a defence, for there were in truth, from an ethical and moral perspective, no charges to answer. It was rather a declaration of principles, a remarkable articulation of an egalitarian political and social vision:
“Our fight is against real, and not imaginary, hardships, or to use the language of the State Prosecutor, ‘so-called hardships’... we fight against two features which are the hall marks of African life in South Africa and which are entrenched by legislation which we seek to have repealed. These features are poverty and lack of human dignity...”
Nelson Mandela finished his statement to the court with this memorable rhetorical display of moral vision and moral courage:
“During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to the struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
It was no mere rhetoric. Nelson Mandela would be imprisoned twenty-seven years. On Robben Island he would be condemned to the punishment of breaking stones and quarrying in the limestone cliffs, a symbol, perhaps, of the gradual dismantling of the apartheid regime from within. In those long, twilight years, there was often cause for despair, and there were setbacks. Under pressure from within and without, the racist state grew ever more oppressive, and ever more aggressive. Before it fell, it would take a great toll on peoples throughout southern Africa.
To write about what was being delivered into the daily lives of the black people of South Africa took an extraordinary courage, and extracted a high price. I think of so many of the brave, Ruth First whose writings those in solidarity movements tried to get and share among each other, Ruth who with Joe Slovo who suffered exile before her murder by a South African death squad in Mozambique in August 1982.
The intensification of repression by the apartheid military in Namibia found its counterpart in the township of Soweto in 1976, when police murdered hundreds of protesting students and school-children. Angola, Lesotho, Mozambique and Zimbabwe would all suffer destabilising attacks by the racialist state for hosting and protecting ANC exiles. Solidarity took a terrible toll, a history, perhaps, that is too often forgotten here in Europe even as it is remembered in South Africa.
Nelson Mandela’s story and that of South Africa is told more eloquently in this exhibition than I could hope to summarise this evening, but I would like to reflect on the Irish involvement in the struggle against Apartheid.
The foundation of the Irish Chapter of the Anti-Apartheid Movement in 1964, by my good friend, the late Kader Asmal became a catalyst for real momentum on this issue in Ireland. The first secretary of the Movement was another old friend, Barry Desmond, who was at the time an official with ICTU, and the chair was the late Ernest Wood SC, a distinguished lawyer and champion of civil liberties. There were so many who helped when it really mattered. You know who you are and you deserve our thanks.
We are honoured to have Kader’s wife, Louise, and their son, Adam, present this evening. Welcome back to Dublin, your other home…
Kader and Louise and many of the other members of the IAAM here tonight, worked tirelessly building a truly inclusive movement against apartheid which attracted politicians and priests, sports persons and shop keepers and many, many others united against this inhumane regime.
It was a movement that was in so many respects managed out of the Asmal home in Monkstown, but inspired and continually given energy by Mandela’s spirit of principled resistance and respect for human rights and human dignity, which struck a chord with an increasing number of the Irish people. This sense of common humanity and shared values led thousands to join the Anti-Apartheid Movement and to stand up to injustice. These dedicated volunteers campaigned to isolate apartheid South Africa at all levels, with notable successes in sporting, academic and cultural boycotts.
The Springbok rugby tour to Ireland in 1970 was a pivotal moment, building huge momentum and intersecting with our own new sense of determination on civil rights in Northern Ireland. While the matches went ahead, the tour was marked by huge protests against the Springbok (and indeed Irish) teams for taking part, and against the apartheid regime. It was an impressive show of force and defiance by those of the people of Ireland who, believing that human rights and defence of dignity for all should know no borders, were willing to demonstrated against a cruel regime far away.
The weather was very bad. I recall Noel Browne’s ‘Boks go Home’ as the rain poured down on us. In Limerick, Jim Kemmy was staunch in defending the protests against what was an organised opposition.
For people of or generation, the struggle against apartheid was one of the great defining moral arguments of the second half of the 20th century, an issue which united people from Dublin to Durban – the utterly repugnant idea that one’s race should predetermine one’s prospects in life needed to be fought and it was people like Kader and Louise Asmal, who so graciously and fiercely, gave authorship to that fight in Ireland.
A touchstone moment of the protest against apartheid in Ireland was of course the Dunnes Stores Strikers. In July 1984, a group of workers mainly young women, in Dunnes on Henry Street, took a moral stand and refused to handle produce imported from South Africa. It was an utterly selfless act. For this refusal, they were suspended, thus marking the beginning of what would be an almost three-year battle by twelve determined and brave workers. The power of their protest and principled stance eventually led the Government of Ireland to ban South African goods from being sold in Ireland, and this ban remained in place until the end of the apartheid regime. I would like to acknowledge the presence here tonight of Mary Manning, the courageous and principled woman who started that protest.
I still recall when Sabina and I visited Robben Island in November, 2014, we were guided around the Prison by a former prisoner turned tour guide, Thulani Mabaso. I remember him vividly describing how hearing about these young women in Ireland who cared so much about their cause had impacted on the inmates, giving them, he suggested, the strength and determination required to carry on. I ndáiríre ar scáth a chéila a mhaireann na ndaoine.
Reflecting on Ireland’s contribution to the struggle, Mandela said, when he addressed the Houses of the Oireachtas in 1990:
‘For more than a quarter of a century your country has had one of the most energetic and effective anti-apartheid movements in the world. Irishmen and women have given wholehearted and often sacrificial support for our struggle in the fields of economic, cultural and sports relations. We, therefore, salute your sportspeople, especially the rugby players, your writers and artists and the Dunnes’ and other workers.’
In the 1980’s, the force of growing international condemnation, sanctions and increasing civil unrest in South Africa brought the Nationalist Party to the negotiating table. During this time, the Asmal kitchen table in Monkstown took a starring role: it was there, that Kadar, with Albie Sachs, another prominent ANC member and lawyer, drafted the earliest version of what would become the South African Bill of Rights, a cornerstone of the constitution of the new South Africa.
The final draft of the Bill of Rights is now regarded as one of the most progressive and just documents of its kind.
As Albie Sachs recently recalled of that time:
‘It was one of the those ‘pinch me’ moments knowing that we were entering into a whole new phase, not simply denouncing, imagining, mobilising; but beginning to craft the foundation of a new society.’
When I spoke on the occasion of Africa Day two months ago I recalled the long and complex history of Irish engagement with South Africa – a history towards which we should not affect any selective amnesia. Many of the Irish men and women imprisoned in this Gaol one hundred years ago had given their support to the cause of the Boer republics in the South African Wars.
Through their own prism what they saw was a number of small republics heroically resisting a great imperial power, ignoring the terrible irony that these very same republics were brought into existence by the displacement of other peoples during and after the Great Trek. ‘Every patriot’, Seán O’Casey would write of that time, ‘carries in the lapel of his coat a button picture of Kruger, Botha, Steyn, Joubert, De Wet’.
By 1948, the National Party of South Africa would present itself as the representative of the Afrikaan peoples, the true lineal descendent of those republicans of the 1890s and 1900s. At that time, the Minister for External Affairs in Ireland was Seán MacBride, whose father had received a commission from the South African Republic for his services in the South African Wars. He was joined by 500 Irishand Irish-Americans, while over 30,000 Irish soldiers had fought for British forces during the conflicts.
Despite these ties of blood, and friendships forged by politicians of the Irish Free State and South Africa, and the 60,000 South Africans claiming Irish descent at that time, the Irish state did not pursue any kind of ‘constructive engagement’ with apartheid. Indeed, Seán MacBride would later, as United Nations Commissioner for Namibia in 1974, champion the national liberation struggle then being waged by SWAPO, to the chagrin of both the apartheid regime and its allies.
Seán MacBride would become a stalwart of the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement. Those of us who were involved faced a struggle at first, not against any stalwart opposition, but against, at times, an indifference, and what we viewed as lassitude in the official position, despite the active involvement of so many politicians across the political spectrum in Ireland.
To us, the moral demand issued from Robben Island required nothing less than ending all forms of collaboration with apartheid. This was not only the policy of Nelson Mandela or the African National Congress, but, let us recall, reflected public opinion throughout Africa and the Global South, as represented by the resolutions of those countries in the United Nations General Assembly for the imposition of active sanctions against the apartheid regime.
Ireland had initially abstained on such motions but in 1970, as a consequence of the activism of the Anti-Apartheid Movement, Ireland became the first Western European state to support sanctions.
In 1987, as I said earlier, the Irish Government acknowledged the moral strength of the Dunnes strikers, and Ireland became the first Western country to ban South African imports, invoking International Labour Organisation conventions which enabled nation-states to prohibit imports produced using forced labour, a policy practiced by the apartheid state.
Ireland, alone of the Western European nations, did not open full diplomatic relations with South Africa until we were assured of the reality of a transition to democracy, and so as we celebrate this year the centenary of the birth of Nelson Mandela, we also celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of partnership between two democratic republics.
Free South Africa has been in our difficult days in search of peace been a source of in Ireland – President Cyril Ramaphosa, with the former Finnish President, Martti Ahtisaari, was among those who were instrumental in making the forging of peace in Ireland, being one of the rare political figures capable of engendering trust amongst a diversity of groups. The powerful example of reconciliation and forgiveness embodied so strongly by Nelson Mandela remains an enduring example today, particularly at this moment in the Peace Process in Northern Ireland.
The relationship with South Africa has grown and matured: our partnership is rooted in friendship, our shared history of colonialism and struggle, the challenges we share in discovering real republics. Our diverse and interwoven linkages will now also be focussed on a sense of shared destiny, a shared determination to create a just and sustainable future for our peoples and our planet.
If we are to invoke the memory of Nelson Mandela today I believe we must do so in the fulness of the challenges, taking into account what was achieved at such a great price, but also what remains to be delivered within one of the finest constitutional documents in the world. We must reflect too on our mutual failures and call up again the courage to create a harmonious connection, in cohesion, between people, society, economy, culture and ecology.
We face many challenges in this new century, many of them sourced in the very same injustices that Nelson Mandela sought to overcome: the terrible dangers presented by anthropogenic climate change, which threaten the livelihoods and very lives of so many people globally but in the Global South most immediately; the moral imperative of welcoming all those fleeing war, famine, natural disasters and persecution; and the threats to social cohesion and solidarity presented by vast inequalities in income, opportunity, wealth and power between and within nations.
These challenges are vast but not overwhelming. They must be met with a sufficiency of courage, conviction, and authenticity – courage, conviction and authenticity equal to that demonstrated by Nelson Mandela. And they can only be met through fidelity to those values expressed in the Freedom Charter so many years ago – a commitment to economic and social justice, to deliberative democracy, and to free and equal access to the machinery of politics, economic power, and to education.
As a community of nations have made commitments to one another through the Paris Climate Accord and the Sustainable Development Goals, two landmark agreements made in an all-too-rare spirit of international solidarity. We are all challenged – those of us in the Global North most of all – to remain authentic to the solemn pledges that we made in Paris and New York. In doing so, we must recognise that the world order needs to make room for the continent of Africa, the continent of the young, the continent of the future, a continent which so often looks to a free South Africa, with all its intellectual and material resources, for leadership. We must not only be trustworthy but enthusiastic partners of South Africa, working together for a new sustainable international economic order.
I hope that many Irish people will come to visit this exhibition. Some will be familiar the story of Nelson Mandela and of the anti-apartheid movement, but for others, perhaps the younger people, parts of the story will be new. For all, it will be an inspiration, and a summons to recover the idealism, courage, and forgiveness too, that Nelson Mandela evoked in himself and in others throughout his remarkable life.
Go raibh mile maith agaibh go leir. Beir Beanneacht