Vale Nelson Mandela

I rise to make a contribution on the death of a man the likes of whom we are unlikely to see again in our lifetime. The weekend’s newspapers were a poignant reminder to us that a truly great international leader has slipped from this life. We had been warned for weeks that Mr Mandela’s health was precarious and that his time with us was short. His passing was nonetheless accompanied by an avalanche of grief that this enduring figure of nobility, grace and courage had left us. Recent television images of Mr Mandela had been telling; they had shown him surrounded by family, his expression distant and reflective. It was as if we had collectively drained the life forces from him.

What an unimaginable weight of expectation he carried, including the hopes of a nation and the broader international community for a fairer and more just society, free of the appalling stain of apartheid. Mr Mandela showed us a different way, a more noble way.

He endured the suffering of imprisonment, during which time he contracted tuberculosis, a condition which by his own admission he battled for the rest of his life. He united a deeply scarred and fractured nation and provided a moral compass for the international community and in return earnt the adulation of millions.

Australia held a special place in the heart of Mr Mandela. One of his earliest visits after his release from prison was to Melbourne to receive the highest civic honour our city can bestow — the Freedom of the City. I was thrilled to meet him. Tall and slim at 72 years of age, he had lost the magnificent physique of his earlier years due to the 27 years that he had spent in prison. But he exuded an aura of authority, tempered by true humility at the overwhelming welcome and affection that greeted him here. His visit to Melbourne followed a long history of struggle and defiance by a collective of churches, trade unions and the student movement in opposition to an apartheid South Africa.

Activists of that time tell of the brutal treatment they received at the hands of Victoria Police and the special branch as they protested the Springbok rugby tour of this country, although their efforts remained undiminished. The role of the Australian Council of Trade Unions at a national and international level and the maritime union in particular — my father’s union — was crucial in ensuring that international pressure on that oppressive regime was maintained. Mr Mandela’s visit, so soon after his release, was acknowledgement of that collective struggle.

The decision by the Melbourne City Council to grant Mr Mandela Freedom of the City was not free of controversy; the decision was reached on a split vote, with a number of conservative councillors arguing that we were rewarding a terrorist, such was their level of ignorance and prejudice. Mandela’s visit was one of the largest public events ever held in this city. Tens of thousands flocked to the city to see him and, if lucky, hear him speak, or simply to be there.

I remember trying to get a glimpse of him through the side door of a jam-packed Melbourne town hall, where he addressed the trade union movement. The excitement and anticipation of his arrival in the hall was electric. Led by the trade union choir, his welcome was in the best traditions of the labour movement. Mandela was amongst his own.

I guess I must have looked a bit odd rattling around in mayoral regalia and chains, craning to get a look at this extraordinary spectacle. A more restrained but no less joyous event awaited in the council chamber above, where as Lord Mayor I conducted the ceremony to award Mr Mandela our highest civic honour. He mixed freely with those present — federal ministers, guests and councillors — which was typical of his egalitarian nature and common touch. In some private moments of conversation Mr Mandela spoke to me about the huge challenges facing his nation in becoming an integrated, just and democratic country.

He understood that heavy burden and recognised that this could only be achieved through the reconciliation of black and white South Africa. Far too soon he departed on the next leg of a crushing schedule, which was to be his lot for the next two decades in public life.

As we brace to mourn his passing, we should also reflect on the crucial role that institutions such as trade unions, churches and the student movement in Victoria played in freeing Nelson Mandela. We should reflect on the role of the people who stood up: Malcolm Fraser, from his earliest days in public life; the Reverend Dick Wotton and the World Council of Churches; and the Hawke government, for its economic sanctions which galvanised international pressure on that brutal regime. All must be acknowledged.

It is all too easy for conservative commentators to single out a particular group for ridicule and scorn, but history will judge well the efforts of so many — organised labour, students and the churches — in the collective struggle for freedom for a great humanitarian and his people. I have to say that meeting Mr Mandela was one of the highlights of my public life, a memory my wife and I will cherish.

Vale Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela.