• Live Mandela’s Principles In Our Own Society Today

    The world’s response to the death of Nelson Mandela is a richly deserved recognition of the suffering and struggle he endured in defence of his principles, and the humility and magnanimity he showed when he finally achieved his, and his people’s, freedom.

    He didn’t just proclaim his belief in human dignity, and his insistence that we are all equal in our humanity – he lived it. It is this shining example, this living embodiment of the quest for freedom and justice, that has touched so many people.

    Nelson Mandela at least had the satisfaction of living long enough to see his life’s work vindicated, even by many of those who opposed him. It is a safe bet that a substantial proportion of those world leaders who paid him homage at Tuesday’s memorial service would not have given him the time of day when he was incarcerated on Robben Island; some, we are told, “can’t remember” what they thought of him at that time and others condemned him as a terrorist. The prospect of the presence of such people at his memorial service was an irony that was not, it seems, lost on Mandela himself.

    But history is full of examples of brave men and women who stood against the prevailing tide – in other words, against the dominant power structures of the time – in order to stay true to the ideals of freedom, social justice and human dignity but, unlike Mandela, went to (or were sent to) their graves without ever seeing the fruits of their efforts. For many, it was only in death, and often much later, that their true worth, and the rightness of what they fought for, was recognised.

    Mandela was, in this as in so many other respects, an exception to the general rule. While he himself was the first to recognise that his eventual triumph did not mean that South Africa became overnight the promised land (in economic terms at least), the outpouring of love and gratitude for what he had achieved shows how much the freedom from repression and injustice has meant to the people whose interests he served so faithfully. In his case, he was left in no doubt that freedom and justice – and the chance of a better life – mattered greatly to those who had been denied them.

    So we must ask why so many of our leaders were so slow to value the universal issues that Mandela stood for and why even today we still resist them when they arise in our own societies and in our own times. Why is it that it is only when history and distance lend a longer perspective that understanding spreads as to the worth of what the champions of human dignity and equality – the fighters for the vote and the rule of law, the opponents of discrimination on grounds of race or gender or sexual orientation, the defenders of equal and basic rights for all – were trying to achieve?

    Is it a failure of imagination? Are we are so comfortable in our easy lives that we cannot conceive that many people – even in our own country – are denied what we take for granted? Are we so persuaded by the constant propaganda that everything is fine that we close our eyes to the real lives of so many of our fellow-citizens? Instead of making the small effort needed to remedy the deficiencies, would we rather deny the facts or blame the victims?

    What to make, for example, of the now incontrovertible evidence of the growing extent of child poverty in our supposedly prosperous society? Are we really prepared to dismiss the the Unicef finding that New Zealand is no longer a good place for children to grow up in or the report commissioned by the Children’s Commissioner that showed more than a quarter of a million children live in poverty?

    At a meeting in Auckland last week, an American woman told me that, when she decided during the course of her first visit to New Zealand in the 1970s that she would settle here, her bewildered family back in the US asked her why. “Because here,” she replied, “there is enough for everyone.”

    It is hard to think of a better definition of a society that functions well and successfully. So how did we become a society in which, despite our increased wealth, there is no longer enough for children who are brought up in cold, damp and overcrowded houses and have to go to school on empty stomachs? Why are we surprised that the illnesses of third world poverty are now rife amongst us and that our educational standards are slipping?

    Will those who find it opportune to pay homage belatedly to the achievements of Nelson Mandela now bring that apparent conversion to bear in the here and now? Will they recognise and act on the claims of so many our children to an equal chance in our rich and beautiful land?

    Bryan Gould

    10 December 2013

    This article was published in the NZ Herald on 11 December 2013