What Mandela meant to me


Ivana Bacik Senator and academic
I think Nelson Mandela has had an immense impact on the world. He has been a shining example of the power of forgiveness; for the triumph of justice over injustice, equality over inequality. During his lengthy imprisonment, he became an icon for the anti-apartheid struggle, and for human rights and democracy movement internationally. After his release, his incredible capacity for reconciliation enabled the building of the new South Africa.

He was distinguished from other world leaders by the fact that through extraordinary adversity, he remained true at all times to his principles; and that he was capable of leading the successful democratic transformation of his country.

He had a great impact on me personally, and upon the development of my own politics. When I was a Trinity law student in the 1980s, Kader Asmal was my tutor — he was then a key member in exile of the ANC and close to Mandela. Influenced by Kader, and by the ideas of Mandela and others like Joe Slovo, I joined the anti-apartheid movement.

When I became President of Trinity Students’ Union in 1989, our Union building was already renamed ‘Mandela House’ in solidarity with the movement. After the fall of apartheid, when Kader became a minister in the ANC government, I was very fortunate to visit South Africa and to meet him there on a number of occasions. I also had the privilege of seeing Mandela himself speak when he visited Trinity College some years ago.”

Joe O’Toole — former senator and trade union leader
As young anti-apartheid activists in the 1980s, we revered Nelson Mandela. We watched in awe as he led his people from war to peace and then as he took the path from physical force to constitutional democracy. What we are left with is a role model of a politician and statesman, regarded throughout the globe. His memory will live long after his death as a fine model to church, state and civic society.”

Adi Roche - founder of Chernobyl Children International

One of my first badges that I wore next to my anti nuclear badge was a button calling for the release of Nelson from Robben Island...he has been a companion and inspirator of mine ever since. His determination, courage, and good nature has inspired me to carry on myself with the Chernobyl campaign especially when times were and are, hard going. I met him at Galway University and I simply basked in his glow and warmth. He just exuded love, laughter and a deep humanity. He is one of my great, great heroes! He acted as a constant beacon that hope was alive and good would overcome evil. It is so hard to imagine this planet without Nelson Mandela; he will be missed. I will miss seeing him on TV as he dances in one of his colourful shirts and I will miss his most musical and distinctive voice ringing out that freedom and justice reigns.

Richard Boyd Barrett - TD for Dún Laoghaire

Nelson Mandela showed that a determined movement of popular resistance and people power can overcome even the most cruel, brutal and unjust regime. His struggle and that of the South African people is vital antidote to the despair people often feel when they are struggling against injustice.

He was a revolutionary. He wasn’t part of the machine. He didn’t become a leader by seeking to work the system or by compromising with it, as is the case with most so-called leaders today.

The victorious struggle against Apartheid, of which Nelson Mandela was the personification, is a crucial inspiration for me and for anyone interested in changing the world — real change is possible and it comes from below.

His legacy lives on in the struggles of the Palestinians, or on the streets of Turkey today, or anywhere where ordinary people are standing-up and fighting back against oppression and injustice.

Dr Michael Jackson - Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin

In a number of significant ways he did impact on my own personal thinking and beliefs: his capacity for courtesy and altruism in a climate of violence and cruelty; his consistent advocacy of a nation for all in a country which had become a password for separatism and exclusion; his ability to inspire the voiceless worldwide to use the systems of government to find a constructive future.

The transitions which he made are tied up with a personality which saw the bad and the good in people across the whole spectrum — this is a rare gift. His capacity to sustain a new type of community in South Africa even when everyone knows that many things are not going as well as people had hoped — this is a mark of his steely determination. His sustained faith in God and in human beings — again, this requires unimaginable stamina and firm and generous beliefs. These are reasons I think he will be greatly missed.

Dessie Farrell - chief executive, Gaelic Players Association

Mandela will be viewed as the individual who has had the greatest influence on the future of his own country. He will also be considered to have had an amazing impact on the world as we all learned from the greatest advocate for democracy, freedom and reconciliation in our lifetime.

His ability to forgive while not forgetting, using the past to determine a better future distinguished him from other world leaders. After almost three decades of imprisonment, he used that experience to create a vision of a different South Africa and new way of life for its people as opposed to allowing that time in isolation to foster a deep hatred and desire for retribution. That is the essence of great leadership- to put your own hurt and feelings to one side and be guided by a higher thinking for a much greater good.

Eamon Dunphy - commentator

He advanced the cause of racial justice, which was in the 20th century and remains one of the world’s greatest and most troubling causes. I think the fact that he suffered greatly himself and his life and his stoicism were examples that inspired people rather than words, it was his deeds that distinguished him from other world leaders. He was a huge iconic figure; when I was young I think the most important thing was to create an awareness of the injustice of apartheid and he did. The other thing that impressed me was that one person can make a difference and he was very much one of the few people in the world who personally made a difference by his own conduct. I think he will be missed greatly by his own people and I think he will be remembered as one of the great people in history.

Fergus Finlay - chief executive of Barnardos

Nelson Mandela’s impact on the world has been the way he lived his life; his behaviour in prison, his passion for reconciliation, his transition from a violent beginning to a deep-rooted commitment to democracy, his determination to be colour-blind, his instinct for joy and pleasure. All of this distinguished him from other world leaders, plus an astonishing sense of personal steadfastness and an ability to project humility. I’ve always seen him as a model — especially in the area of non-violent action and democratic value. He will be profoundly missed and not just in South Africa, where his hold on the affection of the people is an essential binding ingredient, but throughout the world. His charm is utterly unique, and his capacity to make people want to be better is irreplaceable.

Dr Ali Selim - theologian, Islamic Cultural Centre

Mandela proved that peace wins, yet it could take many years. It costs only patience and may be sincere patience. He is distinguished from other leaders in his peaceful perseverance. His firm belief in peace as the ultimate solution is inspiring. He will be missed as much as we miss peace in most of today’s world.

Mary Davis - managing director, Special Olympics Ireland

Nelson Mandela’s greatest impact was the struggle he led to replace the apartheid regime of South Africa, the sacrifices he was prepared to make, the suffering and isolation he endured for 27 years . He was a global role model of someone who never gave up and inspired and motivated others by his actions and his words. What distinguished him from other world leaders was his indestructible spirit and the fact that he spent 27 years in prison before becoming the 1st Black President of South Africa.

I was privileged to have met him when he came to Ireland for the 2003 Special Olympics World Summer Games. I remember meeting him at the airport on his arrival and I was struck by his charisma and sense of fun. There were some Special Olympics athletes there to meet him also and he immediately went straight to them and began to ask them about their sport, their training schedule and he wished them luck in the Games. I was inspired by his total belief in equality and his fight against injustice. He will be missed greatly for his bravery, his courage, his persistence, his belief in justice, his simplicity and his humility. He was an inspirational leader.

David Norris - Senator

His greatest impact on the world was righting a great wrong with extraordinary dignity and generosity towards former enemies. I think his sense of integrity, his interest in the welfare of his people and in a more widespread sense the fact that the welfare of the planet and all its people rather than narrow national or personal self interest guided his actions distinguished him from other world leaders. Apart from the fact that I was very glad he was there, he did not have an impact on my personal life. He will be greatly missed by his family and also as a symbolic figure, but his work was done and done well.

Anne Enright, author

Nelson Mandela changed the world’s view not just of a country but of an entire continent.

Mandela the man was able to inhabit Mandela the symbol like few other leaders. He managed to be both iconic and politically pragmatic at the same time.

When I think of how I felt, the day of the first free elections in South Africa, I am saddened by the way my own faith in democracy has been soiled, in recent years, by big money. Mandela’s death is a chance for us all to remember what a vote means. His light will shine for years to come.

David Begg - general secretary Irish Congress of Trade Unions

Nelson Mandela is a Statesman to whom no negative legacy clings. He is unique in being universally accepted as a good man. With this comes enormous moral authority.

The fact that he endured so much at the hands of his enemies and yet never sought revenge distinguished him from other world leaders. His vision of an ethnically diverse South Africa and his pursuit of peaceful power transition within a democratic polity is without precedent. Amongst African leaders he stood out particularity because of his pursuit of the common good and fidelity to democratic principles, not clinging to power as so many did. He will be missed enormously in Africa because his transparent goodness and high moral standing stood as a constant reproach to those with more base motives in politics. The fear I have is that South Africa might regress in his absence.

Estelle Menton - spokeswoman Jewish Representative Council

Nelson Mandela has had a tremendous impact on the world as he demonstrated that good can triumph over evil and he gave hope to others and he had strong convictions for the betterment of mankind. I think his genuine concern for his people, his modesty and his determination for reconciliation will long live after him. His example of statesmanship as opposed to political kudos show what could be achieved by people of goodwill. Personally I am full of admiration for him and hope that those who follow in his footsteps can try to emulate his attributes. He will leave a great void in a world where inhumanity seems to take precedence over peace and coexistence.

Pat Boran - poet and author

Mandela started to take on special significance as a political prisoner, at least for so many people of my generation, through the hugely popular tribute song Free Nelson Mandela by The Specials AKA in 1984. The stark fact that he was, at that time, already “21 years in captivity” made everyone who heard it sit up and pay attention, and challenged the notion of pop music as mere distraction or decoration. The unimaginable horror of Mandela’s incarceration made people of all walks of life and political belief consider his plight. In a sense we were made to see the world through his eyes, as if he had been the first citizen to leave earth, not just for days or weeks, but for 27 years, and then return to it. We are drawn to him as the Greeks might have been to their gods or heroes, not because of fear or even awe, but because he has been to and survived an experience we cannot even imagine. In that sense, he expands the range and possibility of our humanity.

Mandela was released and came to prominence during the first years of the cult of international celebrity that has since swept the world. It is easy to forget that he didn’t just passively inherit his ‘fame’ by being locked up but earned it by incredible endurance of faith, followed by even more incredible generosity of heart. We have been spellbound by him since because he allows us to see the world through his eyes, with the same compassion and sorrow and humility we hope for from spiritual and political leaders (but so seldom get) and that inspiring, infectious sense of hope.

While Dublin and Ireland honoured Mandela (with the Freedom of Dublin while he was still a prisoner in 1988 and then with his visit here in 1990), Mandela also honoured Ireland. That visit gave international recognition to this country as a state of conscience, as a place that, despite its size, might have significant and important moral contributions to make on the world stage. His example shows that peace, focus, and the struggle with oneself are the keys to progressing, not just as nations but as individuals.

Mandela will be hugely missed, even if his public contributions and appearances have been so few in recent times. He will become a major historical figure, not just in the story of South Africa, but in the story of the peace and reconciliation as it affects so many countries around the world, but departure as a living breathing man into the relative prison of history will deprive us of a figure we could not look on or listen to without seeing something of ‘man’s inhumanity to man’ and of our so seldom tapped ability to forgive and overcome and grow.

Donncha O’Connell — Professor of Law, NUI Galway

Mandela personified greatness, in the true sense, by realising the potency of forgiveness and living out, in his later years, a life of radical witness to the potential of reconciliation.

There are world leaders and there are great world leaders. It was greatness that distinguished Mandela from the rest, a greatness that came from a life lived doggedly and authentically in the pursuit of justice while realising that justice was complicated and could only truly be achieved in a spirit of generosity and forgiveness.

I saw Mandela speak on two occasions — in NUIG and TCD. On both occasions I was moved to tears not just by his words, which were electrifying, but by the extraordinary and joyful charisma of his presence. To have been in the presence of such greatness is a great thing in itself. I feel privileged to have had that experience.”

Diarmaid Ferriter — Professor of Modern Irish History, UCD

The assessment of South African novelist Nadine Gordimer in 1993 contains much truth and is an accurate summary of his appeal: “there are two kinds of leaders. There is the man or woman who creates the self- his or her life- out of the drive of personal ambition and there is the man or woman who creates a self out of response to people’s needs. To the one, the drive comes narrowly from within; to the other, it is a charge of energy that comes of others needs and the demands these make. Mandela’s dynamism of leadership is that he has within him the selfless quality to receive and act upon this charge of energy.”

His significance was also in his consistency, clarity and refusal to compromise on a basic demand: Mandela could have secured his release from prison at various stages if he had agreed to accept deals on offer that would involve him accepting Apartheid, or renouncing violence. His response was adamant: “Prisoners cannot enter into contracts...only free men can negotiate”.

Through his personal suffering, he highlighted the brutality of the Apartheid regime, and ultimately the triumph of the human spirit, but he did not simplify the many divisions in South Africa; it was not just about White versus Black; he pointedly said at his trial in 1962 “I have fought against White domination and I have fought against Black domination”.

As president from 1994, until 1999, he had the formidable task of trying to ensure South Africa did not implode and one of his great achievements in this regard was that he demonstrated a noble lack of bitterness against his enemies. His long imprisonment made him a global symbol of dignified endurance but he also elevated the importance of reconciliation.”

John Bruton — former Taoiseach

I believe that his distinctness from others lay in his ability to achieve radical change by broadly peaceful means.

He had a good partner in Willem de Klerk, without whom the path might have been more difficult.

He did not glorify physical force and that is very important for other divided societies.