Condolence Motion: Death of Nelson Mandela

09 December 2013

Available on the Hansard or below:

December 09, 2013 at 4:39pm

Dr CHALMERS (Rankin) (16:39): This is a time to honour all of those who fought against the evils of the apartheid regime in South Africa, from the great man whom we commemorate today all the way down to the lowly record store owner who was portrayed so beautifully in the movie Searching for Sugar Man, which came out in the last year or two. It is a great movie that shows that one of the amazing things about the anti-apartheid movement was the way that it spread through the country and made change an irresistible thing. It was a remarkable movement and I pay tribute to it today.

It is with a great deal of sadness, but with limitless admiration, that I rise to join with colleagues from all parts of this parliament to pay tribute to a man and that movement, and to the causes of antiracism, reconciliation, democracy, progress and equality, which will live on well beyond the passing of Nelson Mandela. For some people those are just words or slogans. For a lot of the leaders on that continent, unfortunately, they were easily traded away for power, but for Nelson Mandela they were causes for which, as other speakers have mentioned and he repeatedly said, he was prepared to die.

To his clan, his people and statesmen such as Bill Clinton, whom he befriended, he was known as Madiba, his clan name. That is the name they have been chanting in South African streets and around the world since the awful news broke late last week.

He once said, 'The time is always ripe to do right.' It is right to mark the extraordinary life of an extraordinary man who lived for 95 years but whose impact will be felt forever. His was a life forged in the fires of racism and imprisonment during the time of injustice imposed by South African apartheid, by the minority white population, on the majority black population.

He once wrote to his second wife, Winnie, 'Difficulties break some men but make others.' There can be no better example of that than Mandela's own life and struggle on behalf of all South Africans, but especially the poor, the oppressed and the marginalised.

He spoke simply but with immense power multiplied by his humility. I mark something that the Deputy Prime Minister said earlier today, which is the paradox that, the more humble Nelson Mandela got, the greater he became. I thought that was an excellent point raised by the Deputy Prime Minister. How Nelson Mandela maintained such amazing dignity in the face of such trials is beyond explanation. To spend more than a quarter of a very long life in prison and emerge like he did, with his optimism and vision, that straight back and a deep, reflective voice was incredible.

As they did for my colleagues who have spoken already, his struggles inspired me and helped instil in me a passion for tolerance and justice achieved through political action. In that sense he was like Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln and FDR but with one important difference: he was the only one of those who lived and worked in my time. One of my earliest political memories is from grade 7, when Nelson Mandela was released from jail and there was the amazing scene where he was walking along with the big crowd behind him. One of the things that made me start to think that I was from this side of politics was that a social studies teacher explained to me that the Left in Australia was siding with Nelson Mandela, whereas the Right had not always sided with him and had indeed at times sided with his opponents.

Mandela showed us that inspired and courageous political leadership could be contemporary and not just historical. In the mid-90s his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom became the first political book I read. I remember setting the alarm early so that I could plough through as much of it as I could before school. I suspect this week it might become the most re-read book in the world—that is a great thing. I also mark what the previous speaker and also my colleague the member for Canberra said about the Richard Stengel book. Stengel collaborated with Mandela on Long Walk to Freedom and more recently wrote his own book, which laid out 15 lessons from Mandela's life, taken from the thousands of hours they spent together talking about life and leadership while they worked on the first book. Stengel did us a tremendous service by showing Mandela, warts and all: a hero but also a human.

Our greatest debt to Stengel is for familiarising us with the African term Ubuntu. In an introduction to Stengel's book Mandela describes Ubuntu as the profound sense that we are human only through the humanity of others; that if we are to accomplish anything in this world it will be due in equal measure to the work and achievements of others. What a tremendous sentiment that is.

This humility and selflessness is embodied by the man we pay tribute to now, the man who wrote in a famous essay that 'to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others' and who later said in a letter to his famous ally Walter Sisulu:

What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead.

So the Australian parliament unites to thank and honour Madiba today. There is surely no better way to mark his passing than with his own words on mortality:

Death is something inevitable. When a man has done what he considers to be his duty to his people and his country, he can rest in peace. I believe I have made that effort and that is, therefore, why I will sleep for the eternity.

He will be remembered for eternity as well.