It's not the day Diana died, but the day I became politicised that I remember as vivid. I was 12 and it was the middle of the Springboks tour. Shipped in from rural hicksville to the privileged lake-side school run by a bunch of mad women who answered to no one, I was temporarily displaced in a foreign country. The nuns in their old school habits answered to a higher authority over which a mere human agenda could not be expected to take any precedent. "Doing the right thing" was a daily mantra and I took it, dismissively, as part of the punishment of good manners and proper vowels of polishing my 12-year-old, feral, barefoot self.

It did not occur to me that doing the right thing may not necessarily be doing the legal thing or anything more than holding up an arbitrary status quo. (My 12-year-old self would have just said it was lame.)

All talk was "the tour" and I repeated the rural "don't mix sport and politics" of our dinner table, realising that here, I was in a minority position and worse - I hadn't even thought about it. When the nuns, for whom "damn" was a swear word and crossing one's legs a punishable breach of lady-like decorum, came back from their "silent protest" with a broken arm, bruises and a black eye they had, possibly for the first time, my full attention. They never said a word against the police who had been sent in to break up the protest - probably considering them just as much victims as they themselves had been, but I remember thinking two things. 1) Nobody goes out and sits still while being beaten up unless they really believe that what they are doing is not only worth it, but that by not doing it somehow threatens something much greater than the cost of taking a hiding and; 2) This Nelson Mandela guy must be something special.

The measure of the love he had and its power over fear was evident in his refusal to exact revenge, instead putting all children and education at the centre of progress. It would be a mistake however to forget, that this grandfatherly man who seemed to carry no traces of bitterness couldn't have assumed that role with such credibility if he hadn't also been a street fighter. A well educated one, but a street fighter nonetheless. He was a lot more Malcolm X than he was Martin Luther.


A man prepared to put everything on the line for the common good rather than survive a shared evil more comfortably. Or that the first people who went out on his behalf in 1981 in NZ were often portrayed as rank outsiders, stirrers and lefties.

The power of one good man who refuses to live on his knees to move people around the world to get off their own and start walking together seemed miraculous at a time when the machinery of South African politics was so well oiled and all powerful. Despite attempts to canonise Mandela in the form of saintly healer he would only admit this form of hagiography if the definition of a saint; "is a sinner who keeps on trying".

It's one I'm sure those not-so-mad nuns would have rolled with.