FRED MITCHELL’S TRIBUTE TO NELSON MANDELA
6 December 2023
House of Assembly
File photo of Nelson Mandela at the Lynden Pindling International Airport with then Foreign Minister Orvile Turnquest, then Senator Fred Mitchell and Chic Hecht, then U S Ambassador.
6 December 2023
Yesterday 5 December 2023 marked ten years since the passing of Nelson Mandela, the late President of South Africa and I thought that I should mark the passing with an expression of remembrance on behalf of the Commonwealth of The Bahamas.
The history of The Bahamas and Nelson Mandela are intertwined. It was here that in 1985 at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, chaired by our founding Prime Minister Sir Lynden Pindling that the Nassau Accords agreed to impose sanctions on the racist regime in South Africa, as a result of their insistence on the continuation of apartheid.
It was here on the steps of this House of Assembly in 1979 that myself, Beryl Hanna, Vern Darville, Sandra Dean Patterson, Glenys Haana Martin stood to denounce the system of apartheid and to begin the Bahamas Committee on Southern Africa and to campaign for the freedom of Nelson Mandela.
You will recall that he had been imprisoned by the regime in South Africa for offences against public order and had been branded a terrorist and treasonous because of his opposition to apartheid. It is important to note that one day you are branded a terrorist; the next day you are called a hero.
On 23 December 1993, Nelson Mandela landed in The Bahamas and spent a week here, leaving our country on 30 December 1993. While here he met our public officials, including our then Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham and the Cabinet including then foreign minister Sir Orville Turnquest. He was hosted at the home of Sir Lynden and then Lady Pindling. Upon his arrival, I renewed my brief acquaintance with him at the airport. I have included the photo of the press conference which he held upon arrival taken by Peter Ramsay of the Bahamas Information Services.
I had met him earlier, in the late summer of 1992. when I spent six weeks in South Africa as an observer for the Commonwealth, as we sought to shepherd the transition to the democratic process in South Africa. That transition took place in 1994 and South Africa is still alive and free today. In the six weeks that I spent there, I traveled the length and breadth of the country and met with all levels of public officials and leaders of the independence movement in South Africa. In September 1992, I met Mr. Mandela whom we call affectionally Madiba, at the headquarters of the ANC in Johannesburg. It was an honour and one which I will never forget and which I had never expected. I am probably the first Bahamian to have met him,
Indeed his freedom from prison, is a lesson to those who think that life is hopeless, that the darkest hour is just before dawn.
I was in Duncan Town , Ragged Island when Nelson Mandela was freed by the apartheid regime, who had gotten to the point of begging him to leave prison, such was their desperation to save their regime. He came out on his own terms, hand in hand with his wife Winnie. That was the 10 February 1990 some 33 years and change ago.
I remember the day because it was the day of the rededication of the Anglican church in Duncan Town and it was amongst the last of the public appearances of the late Sir Ceil Wallce Whitfield, then Leader of the Opposition. We flew to Nassau on the same plane home. Archdeacon Keith Cartwright had rebuilt the little chapel.
As Honorary Secretary of the Committee on Southern Africa, it was my job to issue the statement welcoming his freedom from prison and the march toward a new South Africa. There were no cells phones or tablets then. I had to hoof it down to the local Batelco station and send a telegram to my friend the late Clunis Devaney, who was then editor of The Nassau Guardian to issue the statement which was carried the next day on the front pages of the press.
I joined Prime Minister Perry Christie at the funeral of Mr. Mandela, held in Johannesburg on 10 December 1993. Thanks to then Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago Kamala Persad-Bissessar, we flew with all Caricom Heads to South Africa from Port of Spain by Caribbean Airlines 767 jet, a thirteen hour journey.
I was prompted for these remembrances by an article that I saw recently about the complexity of his legacy. South Africa is different place today. Its government is democratically elected but is having a rough time with people, especially the young people, thinking that the troubles they face may be a direct result of the freedom they obtained under Mr. Mandela. This often happens as the great moment fades from the minds of those who were present and many of the pioneers in the fight have died. The next generation does not appreciate the struggles in the face of the present tides. We see it happening in our own Bahamas.
The article says that Nelson Mandela has a public legacy of having brought peace and reconciliation to his country by the extraordinary acts of forgiveness that he displayed to those who had despitefully abused him. But that public persona was an act of discipline in the national interest. He was deeply saddened and often angry and depressed at the years that he spent in prison and how he was treated. But that was the private man. The public man kept his composure and brought an era of peace to the nation and stepped down after one term. He lost two of his children and his mother while in prison. He was not allowed to attend the funeral.
His marriage broke up as a result of the life time of being away from his wife. I had the honour of going to the house that Winnie Mandela built for him while he was in prison but which he never lived in, located in Soweto township. As she took me around the House even, as divorce proceedings were looming, she insisted that the House would be kept ready and waiting for the great man to return home.
Sadly, there was no reconciliation. So he lost his family life. Fortunately, he found solace in his third wife, Graca Marcel, the widow of Samora Machel, former President of Mozambique. They lived a great life together.
I saw Mr. Mandela really angry. This was the private man. One day Chief Emeka Anyaoku, then Secretary General of the Commonwealth came calling to try and persuade Mr. Mandela to meet and settle differences with the Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, leader of the Zulus. They were arch enemies. Mr. Mandela refused . He shouted out and banged on the table : “Why should I meet him? Who is he that I should meet with him?”
In the end Gatcha as Chief Buthelezi was called, served as Mr. Mandela’s Home Affairs Minister.
I was there when Nelson Mandela danced with the late Gus Cooper at Junkanoo, the Boxing Day parade in 1993. It was one of those moments to sing the Nunc Demittis
Madam Speaker that is short history of Nelson Mandela and The Bahamas; Nelson Mandela and this Member of Parliament.
Ten years later, he is still a great man, an icon.
May you rest in peace Madiba.