Belfast Telegraph

Nelson Mandela: Nothing is black and white

By Will Chambré

Today Northern Ireland joins with the rest of the free world in mourning the passing of Nelson Mandela. All shades of political opinion here have offered their condolences.

As recounted on BBC Radio this morning, Friday 6 December, many children did not know who Mr Mandela was, and a greater number had not heard of apartheid.


But nothing is black and white.


Is part of the fact that the word ‘apartheid’ has fallen from common usage, one of the successes of the man who was held in Robben Island for 27 years?


Northern Ireland in the past has adopted many of the terms used across the globe to highlight perceived injustices on either side our divided community: ‘apartheid’ and ‘ethnic’ cleansing come to mind.


But nothing is black and white.


Mandela was careful not to take one side or another in aiding Northern Ireland, as he offered Cape Town as a safe venue for political talks in 1997. However, he did have a powerful impact as a champion for what democracy can mean, as millions of South Africans were able to vote for the first time. Yet at the same time there was conflict in the townships and poverty was endemic, despite Mandela’s efforts when made free.


But nothing is black and white.


Despite the travails of the early years of the Rainbow Nation, of which the HIV epidemic touched Mandela personally when one of his sons died of an AIDS related illness, the former prisoner maintained his presence and influence as an example of humility and statesmanship.


But nothing is black and white.


When imprisoned it was the campaign to ban South African products that spread controversy across the globe. However, even the late Margaret Thatcher was bound to the Mandela legacy. As he recalled in his writings, having Mrs Thatcher support the fledgling steps towards democracy gave confidence to the former backers of apartheid.


But nothing is black and white.


Mandela was associated closely with violence undertaken by the ANC, was commonly referred by some as a ‘terrorist’, and refused to denounce his role as a ‘freedom fighter’.


But nothing is black and white.


He sought reconciliation with his former oppressors, he reached out to friends and foes alike and helped create the new South Africa; one in which the problems of the economy and reconciliation were to be faced together, not as warring ‘tribes’.


Is there not a direct comparison with the Northern Ireland Act’s Section 75, which outlaws discrimination on many grounds, but specifically on race, colour, and religion? Is that not something that Mandela wholeheartedly supported?


We have enormous issues facing the Northern Ireland economy, with the coalition government’s austerity programme set to continue as it seeks to reduce the UK’s massive £1.2 trillion debt. The issues of how to cope with welfare reform, fuel poverty and employment remain, and the Executive, as embodied by Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness’s recent trade missions to Japan and other parts of the globe, demonstrate their commitment to working together.


But nothing is black and white.


When the Assembly becomes absorbed in a sectarian war of words, it seems that little is progressing. When so-called dissident republicans place bombs or shoot at police and loyalist protesters cripple Belfast city centre, it seems that little is progressing.


But nothing is black and white.


At the same time, the NI Executive is taking forward a series of major legislative programmes, such as the reform of local government and mental capacity legislation.


Therefore, the reality is that Northern Ireland politics is operating at two levels: the uncomfortable reality of a collaborative executive committee that differ on dealing with the past and symbolism; and the same executive committee that operates as a force to drive forward reform and change, championing our region as a destination for investors, filmmakers and tourists.


It is clear that nothing is black and white. Cut anyone of any colour, race or creed and they bleed red. But this is not the only lesson that ‘Madiba’ taught us. The other is one that our local political leaders seem to have taken on board implicitly; that while the past looms large, there is still work needing done today and tomorrow.


This means the doomsayers, and those that seek to tear down democracy, will ultimately be the ones who fail, while the ones who want democracy, no matter how flawed, to prevail will succeed. This is something that Mandela recognised.


Nothing is black and white, but when we allow for the shades and the colours, we can learn and we can grow into whatever Northern Ireland may face in the coming years.


RIP Nelson Mandela.

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