I wish I had met Mandela. The opportunity never came near. But when I went to South Africa for the first time ten years ago, his influence and his spirit permeated the new South Africa. I was offered a brief sabbatical. For a person committed to reconciliation in Northern Ireland, a visit to South Africa was a ‘must’
I was in Durban. It’s an extraordinary place and I spent time with a vibrant inter-church group called Diakonia and the remarkable women of the Black Sash Movement. The reason I was in Durban for this part of my visit Diakonia was a link between Ulster Carpets, a world famous manufacturer of Axminster Carpets based on the famous or notorious Garvaghy Road in Portadown, and a carpet factory just across the road from Durban Airport. I spent a week with some workers from Portadown who were trying to raise productivity in Durban – but they were also learning about sectarianism by living in the middle of racial tension. They were wonderful – the kind of matter of fact and resilient Northern Ireland people who could cope with anything and with the skill to adjust the fine tolerances on complex machinery by touch alone.
Durban did not feel safe – or I didn’t feel safe anyway. I had a hire car and I was driving around on my own. Satnav hadn’t been invented so I spent an afternoon driving round the city centre to get my bearings. Every time I passed Durban City Hall I knew where I was – because it is an exact replica of Belfast. Every time I stopped at traffic lights, small black faces of the street children appeared at the car window. They were mainly children of parents who had died of AIDS – the HIV rate in that part of South Africa was running at 33% and there was a coffin shop in a steel container just across the road from the factory.
What caught my attention as I drove was the Talk Radio. In Northern Ireland the phone-in’s were angry and bitter – everybody making sure that their foot was firmly on the other’s windpipe – every statement met by a counter-statement. We used to call it ‘what-aboutery’. South Africa was different – and I think it was the Mandela factor, There was a bit of grace, space and elasticity in the discourse – some attempt to put oneself in the place of the other – some empathy. Over-religious Northern Ireland seemed to lack spirituality. South Africa seemed to have some,