Bruce Bisset: Mandela tributes ring hollow

By Bruce Bisset

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John Key's pious attendance at Mandela's funeral is a case in point. Photo / Andrew Warner
John Key's pious attendance at Mandela's funeral is a case in point. Photo / Andrew Warner

In the wake of Nelson Mandela's death, an old friend asked his Facebook friends to say what, if anything, they did to fight apartheid, particularly during the 1981 Springbok tour - and one responded by asking what people were doing to fight it now.

See, that regime may not exist - although the way squatters and miners are shot at will by South African police, you'd be forgiven for thinking otherwise - but the sentiment certainly does. Racism is not something you can wipe away with a rainbow.

Mandela's incredible strength was best manifest in the way he knew and catered to this, giving new direction to his country through reconciliation and forgiveness instead of inviting civil war and chaos.

It was strength born of his own reconciliation; he was, after all, once a communist guerrilla who organised acts of sabotage, and remained on a US list of "terror suspects" as late as 2008, despite rising from prisoner to president.

If his legacy is not quite so enduring as it might be under SA's new rulers, that is their failing, not his. It will be hard for Saffers to stay true to the spirit of grace and humility with which Mandela imbued their renaissance, now that this father-figure is gone.

Too, it will be harder for the downtrodden of any land to move with peaceful hope toward a healing, for Madiba was an aspirational figure to the low-born worldwide. It may be all too easy for violence to rush in to fill the vacuum his death leaves in some hearts.

Including here. Where, despite the mockers and the rugby fanatics and the out-and-out racists, we played a significant part in bringing an apartheid regime to an end.

Ironic if, now, some of our own disenfranchised poor choose terror to try to redress the deeply-ingrained institutional racism which New Zealanders so casually accept.

John Key's pious attendance at Mandela's funeral is a case in point. What was Key doing in 1981? He's "not sure"; he doesn't have a "clear recollection"; he didn't hold a "firm opinion".

Perhaps he doesn't remember attending one of the matches, either. As a spectator, not a protester. Okay, lots of people did. But they're not the Prime Minister, whose disingenuous circumlocution of the issue speaks volumes for his true mindset at the time - which evidently has not changed, else why the evasion?

Dame Susan Devoy, the Race Relations Commissioner you have when you don't actually want one, is another. She excused wanting to play squash in SA when she was champion by saying she "didn't think sporting boycotts helped the situation over there".

Contrast Mandela's statement: "When I heard of the protests [in 1981] the sun shone into the dark cells of Robben Island and transformed the oppressive Soweto dungeons of despair into beacons of hope".

Will the trooping of the Right to Mandela's funeral shine a beacon of hope in Otara or Flaxmere, where the child poverty so shockingly "uncovered" of late has rotted generations of those of colour?

Will the ambivalent views of our top politicians and civil servants transform the despair of the two-thirds of our prison population who are Maori, or save more joining them?

Will the quarter unemployed indigenous youth take comfort from the fact the sun shines on all of us equally? I think not.

The 1981 Tour protests were as much or more about New Zealand than they were about South Africa.

Funny how many people just don't get that. Pity we lack a Mandela here to open our eyes, as South Africa's were opened. And now Madiba's eyes have closed.

Bruce Bisset is a freelance writer and poet.

- HAWKES BAY TODAY

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