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12/12/13 16:10

Motion of Condolence for Nelson Mandela

First Minister Alex Salmond
The Scottish Parliament
Tuesday 10 December 2013

I will have great pleasure in moving the motion, which I know will be supported by every member in the Parliament.

In 1875, less than a mile from the Parliament, William Henley wrote a poem called “Invictus” while he was being treated for tuberculosis in the old Edinburgh Royal Infirmary. Several generations later, 6,000 miles from here, it spoke directly to Nelson Mandela when he was in prison on Robben Island:

I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul ...
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.”

In recent days, the entire world has given thanks for the “unconquerable soul” of Nelson Mandela and it is therefore entirely fitting that this Parliament should mark his passing in this fashion. He was a towering political leader, the greatest statesman of his generation. He was an inspiration to countless millions around the world.

This afternoon, I want to reflect briefly on three of the visits that he made to these islands.

I met President Mandela only once, but I almost met him as a young politician in 1990 when, along with, if I remember correctly, Gavin Strang, George Foulkes and Jim Sillars, I was inveigled into presenting the hands-off-Hibs petition in Downing Street. When we arrived at the steps in Downing Street, there was an extraordinary hullabaloo of cameras and television cameras, the like of which I had never seen. I had no idea that the hands-off-Hibs petition had generated such interest.

Then we were told that Nelson Mandela was meeting Margaret Thatcher and that the meeting had run over by well over an hour. The press were passing their time with the hands-off-Hibs petition.

In a moment of inspiration, I said to the assembled press corps that Nelson Mandela was supporting the hands-off-Hibs campaign. We loitered for a time hoping to meet the great man on his way out of Downing Street but, as we were ushered back up Downing Street, the press corps broke into a chant of “Free Mandela!”, suggesting that after 27 years of incarceration on Robben Island he was now captured in Downing Street by Margaret Thatcher. When we got back to the gates at the entrance to Downing Street, the African National Congress supporters there started chanting “Hands off Hibs!” Both campaigns were successful.

The second visit was three years later, in 1993. As has been well documented over the past few days, and rightly so, Glasgow was the first city anywhere in the world to award Nelson Mandela freedom of the city. It was followed by many other cities around the globe and in Scotland, of course, by Aberdeen, Dundee and our capital city of Edinburgh, and by Midlothian Council.

In 1982, Michael Kelly, the Lord Provost of Glasgow, launched a declaration arguing for Nelson Mandela’s release. That declaration went on to gain support from 2,500 civic leaders from 56 countries around the world. Famously, in 1986, St George’s Place in Glasgow, then home to the South African consulate, was renamed Nelson Mandela Place.

In 1993, when Nelson Mandela was able to accept the freedom of Glasgow in person, he remembered and said how much that gesture had meant to him. He said:

While we were physically denied our freedom in the country of our birth, a city 6,000 miles away, and as renowned as Glasgow, refused to accept the legitimacy of the apartheid system and declared us to be free.”

The place that Glasgow in particular and Scotland more widely earned in Nelson Mandela’s heart has been much commented on in recent days; it is something of which this nation can be justifiably proud.

The third visit that I want to reflect on was in 1996 when President Mandela give an address in Westminster Hall to both houses of the United Kingdom Parliament. It was a much anticipated address and he certainly did not disappoint. He said that unity and reconciliation would be the “first founding stone” of the new South Africa.

Of course, unity and reconciliation shone through in all of Nelson Mandela’s actions—in his refusal to look for vengeance; in his understanding that forgiveness was essential to South Africa’s future; and, perhaps most of all, in the empathy that he showed to his former oppressors.

He invited his prison warder to his inauguration, he asked his prosecutor to lunch and he travelled to the home of Betsie Verwoerd, the widow of the South African president at the time of his own trial and imprisonment.

Those acts of grace, empathy and forgiveness helped to make South Africa’s transition to democracy possible. They are the greatest examples of true statesmanship of our times.

Perhaps the handshake today in the First National Bank stadium between the President of the United States and the President of Cuba is an indication that that empathy, forgiveness and reconciliation continues after death, in terms of the effect that Mandela is having.

Presiding officer, at the end of his trial in 1964, Mandela made one of the most admired speeches of the last century. He said:

I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

Nelson Mandela did not die for that ideal. He lived for it, and he achieved it more successfully than anyone could possibly have imagined. In doing so, he provided an example to people across the planet. He encouraged us all to live up to our better natures. And he inspired us to continue to work for the day when, in the words that resounded around this Parliament when it was opened, “Man to Man, the warld o’er,
Shall brothers be for a’ that
.”

Today, this Parliament extends our condolences to the great man’s family and to the people of South Africa. The world is much poorer for his passing, but much, much richer for his life.