Mandela 2

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,


  1. We seem not to hear so much about the white people in S. Africa who fought apartheid, one of whom was my uncle – a confirmed pacificist but determined opponent of the regime. I thought your readers might find this brief account of interest.

    The following is an extract from Suspended Sentence by Arthur Blaxall (published 1965) whose wife was my aunt. They spent 40 years in South Africa working with blind and deaf children (the Arthur Blaxall School for the Blind still exists).

    ‘ …….. The telephone bell rang.
    “Is that Dr. Blaxall?”
    “Captain X of the Fort prison here. An awaiting trial prisoner named Mandela has asked to see you – can you come up?”
    “Certainly, if it is permitted.”
    “You tell the policeman at the gate that Captain X is expecting you.”

    That was the first of three visits I was allowed to make. I was always impressed by the apparent respect this officer had for the man it was his duty to watch. On the last occasion I said, as time came to an end: “I must go now, Nelson, I will be away several weeks. Your trial begins next week, and may be over before my return: there is no knowing when we will meet again, and under what conditions. May I offer a prayer?” By way of agreement he leapt to his feet, and stood with both hands folded, resting on the table, while I strove to voice some of our deepest longings. We shook hands, and I walked out through the ante-room in which there were two desks. I remember noticing that the police officer at each desk was standing as I walked through, which had not been the case when I went in.’

    Uncle Arthur was arrested shortly after this under the Suppression of Communism Act. The sentence was over 2 years hard labour (suspended) and 6 months in prison but the public outcry was such that he was released next day and subsequently deported with my aunt. The Rand Daily Mail commented at the time (October 18th, 1963):
    “South Africa is left to wonder what might have been the outcome had there been a thousand other men like him, as ready to enter the danger zone as he was. For it is when men of peace hold themselves aloof that the men of violence take over.”

    1. Thanks for that Brenda. When I first visited South Africa, I spent much of the six weeks that I was there attempting to engage with the DRC community around Capetown. I found fascinating – mainly because there were so many affinities with aspects of the community in which I ministered in Portadown. Of course there were people whose views were shocking. But most of them were decent people who were attempting to deal with a difficult hand dealt to them by history. I read the story of Beyers Naude and, like you, thought that some more like him would have helped also

  2. Managed to shake Nelson Mandela’s hand on two occasions – not that we were actually introduced! Glad you mention the Black Sash – I “stood” in Cape Town many a time – especially after Steve Biko’s death – could be scary as the Security Police didn’t like us much – understatement! Lots and lots of memories seeing the snippets of film on BBC since Mr Mandela died. When he had a recurrence of TB and was in Constantiaberg MediClinic (before his release) there was one guard at the gate who was asleep most of the time – the nursing staff said that Nelson Mandela was such a gentleman. May the angels lead him to Paradise! May he rest in peace. Denise

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