A great flame has been extinguished but will live on in our hearts and souls.
Even while a prisoner on Robben Island, Mandela was a great inspiration not only to his own people in South Africa but to my generation of young activists and millions throughout the world- in calling for an end to apartheid, in mobilising action, in seeking a peaceful transition to a fairer and democratic society.
I recall being much aware of his powerful influence during my very first visit to South Africa in the turbulent year of 1986 when I addressed the COSATU trade union congress at Wits University at a time of still bloody apartheid repression. Likewise a few years later, after his release in 1990, I saw him take the podium at the joyous independence celebrations in Windhoek, Namibia to cries of ‘viva’.
I was subsequently greatly honoured to attend President Mandela’s inauguration at the Union Buildings in Pretoria in 1994, sitting next to such historical figures as the late President Nyerere of Tanzania, other world leaders and many anti-apartheid activists. I also witnessed the inaugural conference of the South African Local Government Association in 1996 when his entry sent a discernible wave of electricity around the delegates in the hall. I further recall the ecstatic reaction of a black police woman at the 1999 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Durban, who seized the portrait of Madiba which I was carrying and promptly kissed it on the mouth!
Mandela’s greatness was shown in his personal humility and well as in his ability to strike a note of reconciliation and forgiveness despite his own 27 cruel years of imprisonment- symbolised perhaps most famously by the springbok jersey to urge the South African team to victory in the 1995 rugby world cup. It also showed in many of his other actions, not least his forgiveness towards his people’s oppressors in South Africa and their supporters abroad.
In the Commonwealth too, Mandela’s influence and moral authority is very apparent: it was in no small measure due to him that the Commonwealth strengthened its position developing some real teeth after 1995 in dealing with breaches of democracy and human rights. At the time this led to the temporary suspension from membership of the then military regime of Nigeria, later followed by others such as Pakistan and Fiji: perhaps however nowadays these ‘teeth’ are not used often enough.
I was fortunate to be the third person to sign the official book of condolence at the South African High Commission in London following British PM David Cameron and Commonwealth Secretary-General Kamalesh Sharma. As I was writing my message of condolence, it seemed that what we should be doing was to celebrate, not mourn, and to take inspiration from Nelson Mandela’s great ideals and achievements, to carry on with his legacy and take forward the fight for social justice and equality everywhere.
CLGF and its members will be doing this in their own work, including when we celebrate 2014 as the year of developmental local government – itself a concept pioneered in South Africa.
The United Nations already has 18 July - the day he was born, as Nelson Mandela International Day for freedom, justice and democracy. Commonwealth countries should take a lead in declaring this day as an official public holiday with local government and their partners planning specific activities to promote peace, tolerance and social, economic and political equality: an appropriate way to honour Mandela’s enduring legacy for future generations to come.