The Best Tribute to Mandela Was Delivered 15 Years Ago

By far the best tribute to Nelson Mandela that I have read was not made in the past few days but fifteen years ago, when Mandela was about to leave the presidency. It was delivered in the Parliament of South Africa by Tony Leon, then the leader of a small upstart party that would soon go on to dominate the opposition. 

Leon had actually turned down Mandela's offer to join his cabinet because he believed that building the opposition was a more important task. 

I later worked as Leon's speechwriter, but cannot take a word of credit for this gem:

There are three categories of great political leaders. The first is the great and the bad: this includes Hitler and Stalin. The second is the great and the good: this includes Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt. And then there is a third category, also of good, but of a leader born with a special kind of grace, who seems to transcend the politics of his age. This is a very small category, and in fact I can think of only two such men in this Century: Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela.

However, Mr Mandela was, and also remains, a staunch politician. But he is a politician who did manage to raise the sights of our politics. We thank him for this. We acknowledge that when he clashed with us as the opposition it was on the great issues and on core principles and how he avoided - at all times and in all circumstances - the petty bitterness of personal jealousy. We see how he was that rarest phenomenon - a committed politician and an unusually agreeable and generous man.

Tennyson said:

Tho' much is taken; much abides,
That which we are, we are,
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Strong in will, 
To strive, to seek, to find and not to yield."

People might think it is difficult for a politician to give tribute to a man of an opposing party. In fact this is the easiest speech I have ever delivered to this house. I am deeply honoured that l have been able to see from these benches the ending of apartheid and the beginning of full democracy under the Presidency of Nelson Mandela. My respect and admiration for him is unconditional. He graces this house. He graces this country. He graces humanity.

I do not think any South African can think of our President's 27 years in jail or see his tiny cell on Robben Island without feeling a shiver of awe and respect. I think we forget too easily what this country has come through since those dark times when he was sentenced to life imprisonment. for attempting, in the only way he felt was not denied him to oppose the evil of apartheid.

After that the country plunged deeper and deeper into racial strife. There were many people in South Africa and abroad, who believed that South Africa was heading for a racial Armageddon, for a bloody civil war between the races that would consume our whole society. The fact that such did not happen is a tribute to the fundamental good sense of our people, black and white. But if there is one individual who must be given credit for reaching out across the racial divide and dousing the flames of racial hatred, that individual is Nelson Mandela.

The threat of civil war, which seemed so menacing only ten years ago, has now gone. I believe it has gone forever. We have many problems still but this one is solved and I believe our peace and political stability now will be passed to the children and grandchildren of South Africa: a gift to them from Nelson Mandela. His gentleness and his strength inspired a nation.

But President Mandela had real political courage as well. And we hope his successor will display such courage as well. President Mandela was brave and resolute in displaying, in recent and difficult times:

  • The courage to declare the Constitution foremost;
  • the courage to respect the judgments of our courts even when they found against him;
  • the courage to have asked the TRC to "publish and be damned" even though narrower, more partisan interests in his own organization thought otherwise; and most, most important of all -
  • the courage to reconcile the races when more votes might have been won by rending them further asunder.

As you and your wife take leave of us Sir, in the twilight days of this millennium, perhaps we should cast our minds back to a few years before you were born. At the other end of this tumultuous Century, another President, from another great country, Theodore Roosevelt of the United States, defined victory, defeat and struggle:-

"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; because there is not effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumphs of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat. "

You have, President Mandela, "dared greatly".

May you be spared for many years yet.

We should look upon you and learn from you.

We will not see your like again.


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