Russell Marshall’s Column

Russell Marshall
Russell Marshall

A lunch in Jo-Berg with Mandela’s personal assistant

By Russell Marshall

In the late 1980s there was much concern around the world, especially in the English speaking countries about the internal conflicts in South Africa.

A Special Session of the United Nations was called to discuss the situation and consider what, if anything, could be done. The Session took place in mid December 1989, exactly twenty four years ago.

There had been one encouraging move during the year. All but one of the African National Congress members sentenced to life imprisonment in 1964 had been released.

The one still so confined was their leader, Nelson Mandela, and the indications from the government were that this situation was not likely to change at any time in the near future.  During the Special Session there were calls for the de Klerk government to reconsider its stance. Alongside the speeches a working party spent many hours negotiating a statement for the Session to approve.

Release a surprise

Ably chaired by the NZ Permanent Representative Dame Ann Hercus, the drafting team achieved something unusual for Special Sessions, an agreed document.  As the session ended however there would have been little hope that there would be any release of Mandela in the near future. To widespread surprise and much rejoicing, he was freed eight weeks later.

A few years ago I had a meal in Johannesburg with Barbara Masekela, who had been Mandela’s personal assistant from the time of his release in February 1990 until his election as President  in April 1994.

One of her observations has endured in my mind. It was to the effect that, while he was not brilliant, Nelson Mandela had excellent judgement, both of people and about the handling of issues, and he was shrewd. He needed all of that.

The miracle was and is that more than anyone else, he was able to guide and oversee a remarkable transformation, ensuring that South Africa became one nation, with everyone entitled to vote.

That took place, admittedly with worrying conflicts in what is now Kwazulu Natal and Johannesburg’s East Rand, but more smoothly than many other countries have managed.

This is also a time to recall that the latter part of the apartheid era brought about a deep divide in our own country, most markedly over sporting contacts, particularly rugby.

English acknowledges protesters

It was good to hear Acting Prime Minister Bill English in Parliament yesterday acknowledging that the protesters had been in the right after all.

A marked contrast with the laughing by some MPs said to have taken place during and after the Molesworth Street police batoning of protestors in 1981. Ably led by people such as Alick Shaw and Trevor Richards, all the Wellington evening and Saturday protests were remarkably disciplined.

HART began in Christchurch and one if its leaders was Pauline McKay. Now running Christian World Service in Christchurch she would have been a very appropriate member of the New Zealand contingent to Mandela’s funeral.

The South African High Commission is hosting a Wellington Memorial event for Nelson Mandela tomorrow, Thursday at the TSB Arena at midday.

Russell Marshall chaired the Commonwealth Observer Mission to South Africa January to May 1994