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Monday, 9 December 2013
Page: 2084


Mr BRENDAN O'CONNOR (Gorton) (16:15): I join other members in expressing our condolences over the passing of the former South African President, Nelson Mandela. I would also like to associate myself with the fine words of the Chief Government Whip in his recollections of what this man meant to him and, indeed, what this man has meant to millions of people around the world. Mr Mandela was a leader who fought against the apartheid policies of South Africa and rendered an immense service to humanity. He changed the lives of millions of impoverished and oppressed people. A hero of the apartheid struggle, Mr Mandela spent 27 years in jail and then became South Africa's first democratically elected president.

The collective bereavement which has met his death across the world not only reflects the scale of his achievements but, indeed, the quality of the man. The African National Congress, in a statement released shortly after Mr Mandela's death, said:

The large African Boabab, who loved Africa as much as he loved South Africa, has fallen. Its trunk and seeds will nourish the earth for decades to come.

Mr Mandela's legacy and memory have been celebrated and his passing mourned by leaders around the world. The world leaders' speeches are replete with superlatives and sorrow. The President of the United States, Barack Obama, said just after Mr Mandela's passing that he now 'belongs to the ages'. President Obama said that Mandela:

… embodied the promise that human beings—and countries—can change for the better.

He paid homage to the influence that Mandela had on his own political career. Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, a good friend of Nelson Mandela, described Mandela as being 'like a most precious diamond honed deep beneath the surface of the earth'.

For the many Australians who have paused to reflect on Mr Mandela's contributions, they can be proud that three successive prime ministers—Mr Whitlam, Mr Fraser and Mr Hawke—all played an important role in advocating for Mandela in his struggle. Mr Whitlam's government banned racially selected sporting teams from touring here, which of course meant that we did not go through the same difficulties that we have seen occur in other countries. Former Prime Minister Bob Hawke played a pivotal role at the CHOGM meeting in the Bahamas in 1985, ensuring financial sanctions designed to choke the South African economy were adopted. It is also true to say that there was a different view about economic sanctions at the time. Mr Howard, the then opposition leader, opposed those sanctions. He told parliament in 1986:

The proposition that the white regime can be removed by the imposition of economic sanctions or that the imposition of sanctions will bring about a major change in the attitude of that regime, is a very questionable one.

I do believe that, on that occasion, the then leader of the coalition and, indeed, the coalition at that time were on the wrong side of history. The Australian Labor Party was one of the very few parties around the world to give practical assistance to Mr Mandela and the ANC in the 1994 general election.

When Mandela was released from prison, he visited Australia. Tens of thousands turned out to hear him speak. I had the good fortune to be in attendance at a gathering on 25 October 1990 at Melbourne Town Hall, where Nelson Mandela addressed unionists to thank them for their long effort to put political pressure on the regime of South Africa to have him released and—more importantly, as he would see it—to see a road to democracy for his country. I had the great honour to be in the audience when he was there. I just want to read out a couple of things that he said on that day as he addressed us:

It was the labour movement of this country in the early-50s which supported the dockworkers in this country who refused to unload South African ships. That was a decision which created a great deal of excitement, which gave the people of South Africa in their struggle, a lot of strength and a lot of hope.

It was difficult to understand how workers, thousands of miles from our shores, who did take the initiative the lead, among the workers of the world, to pledge their solidarity with the people of South Africa. The feeling that we are not alone, that we have millions of workers behind us, is a factor which has prepared us, notwithstanding the most brutal form of oppression which we've faced in our country. Throughout, since 1912, every South African Government has tried to destroy the African National Congress, or at least to cripple it. Not only have they failed in that resolve, but we have emerged to be the most powerful political organisation in the country, inside and outside of Parliament.

Clearly this was an emotional tribute by Mr Mandela and it showed his appreciation for the efforts of the union movement in this country, even before Labor governments agreed to impose sanctions on what was a horrific and undemocratic regime. As I say, I was fortunate to be there that day when Mr Mandela addressed us. He seemed, even at that moment—that moment of triumph, one would think—a man of humility, of modesty and of even temper. Amidst a very excitable crowd, he was in complete possession of the moment, and his dignity shone through. It is a great loss to South Africa, a great loss to this world. Let us hope that he will continue to inspire future generations.