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Turia: Wellington Memorial Service for Nelson Mandela

13 December 2013

Wellington Memorial Service for Nelson Mandela

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In 1995, Te Ahukaramu Royal composed a waiata to commemorate the visit of President Nelson Mandela. That waiata, Kotuku-rerenga-tahi, tells the story that ‘a white heron’s flight is seen but once.’

The proverb represents a precious and rare event; the likes of which we will not see again.

Ki a koe e Te Kotuku-rerenga-tahi, e te Rangatira.

Madiba – from political prisoner to president, architect of South Africa’s transformation, freedom-fighter, nation-builder, grandfather, husband, father, son.

This son of Africa became the icon of the world – not for his role as head of state, but more so for the impression he has made in speaking to our collective heart.

What is it about this man that moved the world to mourn, how do we understand the outpouring of grief from across the globe?

I believe it came from his expression of a common humanity, a love for one another that he would not relinquish, despite being sorely tested.

For tangata whenua, we cherish a profound connection to this legend of a man.

Before I entered Parliament, Whanganui had the honour of welcoming President Mandela’s deputy Thabo Mbeki when a delegation of the new South Africa visited Aotearoa. To this day, we recall the associations we made – derived on the basis that ‘an injury to one is an injury to all.’ We understood we were part of a collective mass action against state-sanctioned discrimination, we stood with our African brothers and sisters in search of justice, and unity in diversity.

Later, in his time with us at Turangawaewae, Madiba spoke a truth that instantly touched the indigenous soul.

He spoke of our common bond in knowing the ‘pain of conquest, dispossession and oppression’ and he imagined a future in which we all would experience ‘restitution and reconciliation.’

My cousin, the late Te Atawhai Taiaroa, in his capacity as Convenor of the Maori Congress, used the occasion of that hui to deplore the taking of lives in Israel and Nigeria, to thank the President for his condemnation of French nuclear tests, and to condemn the jailing of activist Ken Mair.

In my view, that is one of the vital lessons of Mandela’s life – that if we truly believe in peace, democracy and justice we must fight for freedom in every sphere.

No stone should be left unturned, until the pathway for all is cleared. The struggle was his life’s work - a higher calling for liberation no matter the sacrifices suffered.

On Robben Island this man of peace spent his days hammering stones into gravel. He was allowed just two visitors and two letters a year. From all accounts it was a primitive and brutal existence.

And yet after 23 years of that harsh regime, when he was offered release conditional on renouncing violence, Madiba replied with a dignified defiance, stating he would do so only if President Botha first abandoned the violence of apartheid.

A man of high principle. A powerful advocate for compassion. In his deep understanding of the meaning of forgiveness, we find much to admire.

As I stand here today to honour Madiba, I want to also pay tribute to the many thousands of New Zealanders who joined him on his long road to freedom from the heinous crimes of apartheid.

Our landscape was forever shaped by the winter of 1981, when for 56 days, over 150,000 New Zealanders took part in over 200 demonstrations in 28 centres, 1500 of our freedom fighters being charged in the process.

I believe the Springbok Tour of ‘81 woke up many in this land to the history of racism and inequalities experienced by Maori in our journey.

The overthrow of apartheid in South Africa also overthrew the racist policies in Aotearoa that denied Maori the chance to be selected to play as All Blacks against South Africa.

New Zealanders’ struggle against apartheid in South Africa also became a struggle against racism at home, in which Pakeha questioned their assumptions about race relations and sought justice and equality for all.

We could learn much from Mandela’s model of truth and reconciliation – to look for ways to dismantle inequities, to improve outcomes and to achieve healing of a nation’s wounds.

Arguably when in the President’s seat, Mandela was not able to achieve the change he aspired to while locked up on Robben Island, but the promise of a better future never left him.

If your people have been colonised, to the extent that they have almost lost the essence of who they are, the battle must be fought on many fronts. The indifference of those in power to the situation of the vulnerable can be debilitating. We know too, that poverty of material resource is but one barrier. The poverty of spirit that is left in the hearts and minds erodes faith and destroys self-confidence.

Against that backdrop, Hope is a compelling force in the long road to reconciliation. Madiba had hopes for a world in which the growing inequalities were eliminated, a world where we do make poverty history. He knew that freedom will only be known when justice is experienced by all.

He attacked any injustice that would create a second class of citizenship. He challenged the African state to invest in all its children, he moved a nation to believe in freedom, equality, democracy and justice.

His public support to raise awareness about HIV and AIDS and help reduce the stigma, challenged the political status quo - a campaign tinged with poignancy after Mandela lost his only surviving son to an AIDS related illness.

I could speak forever of all the things that are known about this man. But in the end it is in his capacity to have transformed the world with his vision, that has made the greatest difference.

He had withstood trials and tribulations that many of us will never know – but throughout all, he stood as a candle of hope, inspiring us to believe in a better future.

Although he no longer walks this world with us, his legacy will live on if we choose to believe that we can be liberated from injustice – black and white, rich and poor, saint and sinner.

His name has become synonymous with the selfless struggle for liberty, an unwavering pursuit of social justice. He is indeed an icon of our times, he Kotuku-rerenga-tahi.

We will not forget you - your example inspires us all to be a better person - to practice peace - to believe in forgiveness.

And in this one way, we can all learn from you Madiba, we can carry your legacy forward, by holding proudly to a candle of hope and to keep that flame glowing for a brighter future for us all.

No reira, e Madiba! Whakangaro atu ra ki te po e te rangatira. Moe mai ra ki to moenga roa.


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