Twenty three years ago today the world sat down to watch Nelson Mandela be released from prison. Then the dancing began. We all remember where we were and who we were with that day. It was one of modern history’s epochal moments. In his first speech as a free man, Mandela confirmed that the armed struggle against the Apartheid regime remained a legitimate weapon.
Here was a man at the very centre of a political argument about whether violence can be justified against tyranny. It would have been easy for him to say that the armed struggle should end there and then. He didn’t. He’d spent half a lifetime in prison waiting for this moment.
Back then our Conservative government and its supporters did nothing to oppose apartheid. On the contrary they resisted every method chosen. They repeatedly referred to Mandela as a terrorist. Frankly, they were racist too. In the 1980s my local Tory MP in Brighton Pavilion, Julian Amery, spent an entire year in South Africa. He preferred to live with the Apartheid regime than to represent his own constituents.
Mandela is now regarded as the greatest statesman in the world. His political leadership guided South Africa through particularly difficult times. He didn’t win this kudos by always saying the things that the world’s press wanted to hear. He didn’t compromise his principles because the big banks, which propped up the regime, asked him to. He didn’t buckle under the pressure.
No wonder that he is regarded as the president of the world. I guess his religious beliefs may prevent it but what better candidate is there for the soon to be vacant post of Pope? Mandela isn’t just the highest political authority on the planet, for most of us he’s the spiritual leader too.