My Lords, I have just returned this morning from attending the UK-India Roundtable in Delhi.
We started our meeting on the morning of the 6th December with two minutes of silence for Nelson Mandela.
India immediately declared five days of state mourning. In fact, there was no alcohol allowed to be served at our gathering!
I was born and brought up in India and I met my South African wife, Heather, a year after Nelson Mandela was freed from 27 years of imprisonment. We were married thereafter in the UK, in South Africa and in India, a few months before he became President.
The UK and India have always been my home – and then South Africa has become one as well over the past two decades.
When I first visited the Free State, where my wife’s family farm is, 21 years ago – I was told that, as an Indian, only a year or two before, I would not have been allowed to have spent the night in the Free State!
If an Indian was travelling through the Free State on his way from Johannesburg to Durban and his car broke down en route, they would have had to report to the police and would have had to spend the night in gaol!
How things have changed thanks to this great man – and thanks also to President F.W. De Klerk who I have the privilege of knowing.
In India, Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Ghandi are often talked about with the same reverence.
Mahatma (meaning Great Soul) and in the case of Nelson Mandela – he was a man who was the living embodiment of the word Ubuntu , popularised by Archbishop-Emeritus Desmond Tutu – a fellow Honorary Fellow of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge. Nelson Mandela was himself an Honorary Fellow of Magdalene College, Cambridge.
Nelson Mandela himself said that Ubuntu does not mean that people should not enrich themselves. He used the term in a speech and said, “the question therefore is: are you going to do so to enrich yourself in order to enable the community around you to be able to improve?” Ubuntu is about human nature, it is about humility, it is about human kindness and it is about community.
His lack of bitterness, his facility to forgive and his human kindness knew no bounds.
As Mandela said;
“No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
It was fellow South African Nobel Laureate Desmond Tutu who that – “Like a most precious diamond honed deep beneath the surface of the earth, the Madiba who emerged from prison in 1990 was virtually flawless.”
Mandela was a great admirer of Ghandi and often spoke about him.
Mandela said “India is Gandhi’s country of birth; South Africa his country of adoption. He was both an Indian and a South African citizen.”
And he also said – “Both Gandhi and I suffered colonial oppression, and both of us mobilized our respective peoples against governments that violated our freedoms.” before adding that Gandhi was no ordinary leader – well, we know that if Gandhi was able to say it about Nelson Mandela, he would have said the very same words.
Is it not remarkable that both men had their difficulties with the two great British Prime Ministers of the past century? Gandhi with Churchill and Mandela with Margaret Thatcher.
Nelson Mandela was without doubt, alongside Gandhi, one of the two greatest individuals of the past century.
What is more, like Gandhi, he didn’t just change his country or inspire his generation. He inspired the world – and what is more, he did not do this just for his generation or for the generations beyond, he did it for the rest of the world for eternity.
When imprisoned on Robben Island – Mandela often recited the poem “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley to his fellow prisoners. It concludes;
“I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.”
My favourite saying of Mahatma Gandhi applies more to Nelson Mandela that anyone he could have imagined. When he said it, we know Mandela lived it and breathed it. If I may, I will paraphrase it;
“Your beliefs become your thoughts, your thoughts become your words, your words become your actions, your actions become your habits, your habits form your character, and your character determines your destiny.”