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Wednesday, 11 December 2013
Page: 2496

Mr RIPOLL (Oxley) (11:48): I, like everybody else in this place and I think all Australians, feel some sort of special connection to Nelson Mandela. I thought it was important that I make a few remarks in this place about his life and contribution to all people, and also to associate myself with a range of statements that have been made by members, including the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition. It would be an understatement to say that Nelson Mandela has left an indelible change throughout his life. He was a man who was born with little opportunity in a country that gave very little opportunity to him and his people, a man who was born in 1918 and lived an incredibly good and long life through so much hardship, so much pain and suffering. Yet he achieved so much good, so much to be proud of, such a large family. We should understand that during the peak of his life he spent 27 years in prison, and it was not an easy prison life.

For him to later become the first black president of South Africa in 1994 says a lot about him, about his country, about his determination. I signed the book in Parliament House yesterday that will be sent through to South Africa, and wrote just a couple of short words. The thing that sprung into my mind was what great faith a man like Nelson Mandela must have had in people, in humankind, in mankind—a great faith that not only would he be able to lead them at some point in time, that he would be the change, but that people would follow him. For me, it just seemed to sum up what must have been, for him, what kept him going.

Quite famously, Nelson Mandela, it is written, has a favourite poem—I am not too sure if it is specifically or not; there is some conjecture—but it is quite well-regarded. It is called Invictus, which in Latin means 'unconquered'. I am not going to read the poem out—I am sure others have done that—but I did want to pull out a few words from that poem which I think summarise everything that Nelson Mandela, as a person, represented. In the first paragraph the poem says, 'I thank whatever gods may be/For [his] unconquerable soul'; that his head was 'bloody, but unbowed'; that with 'the menace of the years' he should find himself unafraid. The poem finishes with, 'I am the master of my fate:/I am the captain of my soul.' Quite a great poem, quite a stirring poem, and if in a few words anything could sum up the life of a man who lived for 95 years, it does a pretty good job.

The outpouring that we are seeing in South Africa right now, but also right around the world, is on a scale unimaginable: that any one person, one individual, could be held in such high regard, have changed the world so much, have brought so many people together that literally every head of state, every leader, every country is represented. Everybody wants to be associated with the good things that he did, and I think that is quite incredible. He did change the world, and he did it in the most adverse of circumstances, which is why it is so powerful, why it is so big: because it is almost not possible that one single man could possibly do all these things. But he did that. It must have been very difficult for black people in South Africa to believe that one day they would be on an equal footing, to be equal citizens, to have equal rights, to be considered the same as everybody else, to see the end of apartheid. It must have been an incredible dream or aspiration to have, that you could actually change that.

There were a lot of similarities between the things that were happening in South Africa in that movement that he pushed and some of the things that were happening in Australia. I am very proud to belong to a political party, a political movement, proud to be associated with a range of people across the union movement and across the community in a whole range of areas, and particularly with then Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, who banned racially selected sporting teams from touring in Australia. This was a big thing to do, this was controversial; these are not easy decision to take. Looking back, we can all probably agree and say, 'Of course that was the right thing to do, of course that was right,' but at the time it would not have been so easy. Sometimes in life you find yourself making decisions which are really difficult. It does conjure up a whole range of thoughts around what governments do, what individual people do, what political parties do, what the community does. Sometimes you find yourself in the face of adversity or criticism and there may be an easier path. In fact, there is always an easier path. Sometimes the popular vote, let us just say, is an easy path. But leading is not about the easy path. Leading is about knowing what is right, making a decision based on well-informed facts, and doing the right thing—just simply doing the right thing. And that is certainly what Prime Minister Whitlam did back then.

Prime Minister Hawke also was significant in ensuring that global bodies adopted economic sanctions against South Africa. Again, it was not an easy thing to do, particularly with the circumstances of the time, but it made an enormous difference. I think it put Australia, and all Australians, on the right side of history; Australia had collectively done some good. In a small way, Australia helped to place the focus, the light and the pressure to ensure that Nelson Mandela and his people, in their great struggle, knew that other people were on their side.

There are circumstances around the world, even today, of political prisoners in jail and other people who find themselves in horrific circumstances. I have spoken to some of those people, sometimes through their advocates. I know that many people in this parliament have written letters in support of people to governments, saying, 'We don't agree with this and we think you should release political prisoners.' But to hear directly from them that the difference it makes to them in their prison cell to know that somewhere in the world somebody in authority, somebody in government, somebody in a parliament knows they exist, knows their struggle and is supporting them makes the world of difference to these people. It gives people hope. I can only imagine that for Nelson Mandela one of the small things that must have carried him through those 27 years in prison would have been the knowledge that there were people outside that prison who were supporting him. There were people in Australia, people in the United States—people all around the world—supporting him. I think that all of that collective action made an enormous difference.

But there is something even bigger that, the reason so many people are contributing in some way in his memory. There is so much celebration, not that the man is gone, but celebration of his whole life. The one thought I have had continually in mind about this is that it must have been so hard for a man who was wrongfully imprisoned for 27 years to walk out of his prison cell and feel no animosity, not want to take revenge, not want to get people back. He must really have understood something that so few leaders can ever possibly comprehend or, even if they understand, enact. He must have understood that he represented the future of his country and of all his people. In fact, it was probably bigger than that: he represented something that would change the face of humanity, and that he would sacrifice his own people in the way he behaved. He walked out of that prison; he became President; and he saw himself as the great uniter. He would be the one who would bring everyone together, the person who would be representative of all the people of South Africa. He knew that everyone would look to him for leadership and that they would follow. That is an incredible thing. The temptation—the doubt in his mind—sometimes to seek some small retribution, to try to make things even, must have been an enormous pull.

It is with great pleasure that I, like so many other people in this place, associate myself with the words that are being said. I thank the House for this opportunity.