Envoys remember Mandela

Tributes to Nelson Mandela outside South Africa House

Flags at embassies across London were lowered to half-mast as diplomats joined long queues of mourners outside South Africa House to pay tribute to the late Nelson Mandela.

But one Ambassador’s journey will take even longer. The Ambassador of Guatemala, Acisclo Valladares Molina, is going on a 10-hour road trip from Pretoria to the remote town of Quno to represent his country at the funeral.

“The effort is going to be a bare minimum tribute to his memory. Driving through his country will give me the time I need to pray for him and to think about all his teaching,” said Molina.

The Ambassador shares something in common with Mandela. He was also a prisoner of conscience during Guatemala’s bitter civil war (albeit for a shorter time); he also stood for president (but was never elected).

So for Ambassador Molina the journey will be a chance to reflect. “On the road – in his land – I will think about my own country, about conciliation and reconciliation; about peace, justice and forgiveness.”

For diplomats, the South African liberation hero’s legacy poses a challenge, Austrian Ambassador Dr Emil Brix wrote in his tribute.

“He inspired generations by proving that a peaceful solution of seemingly insolvable conflicts is possible. He gives us hope that reconciliation is much more than a word.”

The South Sudanese, embroiled their own liberation struggle for decades, were inspired by the callenge, said Ambassador Sabit Alley.

“There is no doubt that the people of South Sudan, in their own liberation struggle against religious and racial oppression, domination and marginalisation, were greatly influenced by the struggles of their South African brothers and sisters under the stewardship of their iconic leader, Madiba.

“Although Nelson Mandela has passed on, his legacy of peaceful co-existence, reconciliation, freedom and justice will continue to influence many in Africa and the world at large.”

Indeed, at the memorial service in South Africa – which turned out to be a ‘World Summit’ of more than 100 leaders – US President Barack Obama was photographed shaking hands with Cuba’s President Raul Castro. Even in death, Mandela had managed to unite adversaries in a spirit of reconciliation.

The Cuban President shared centre stage with world powers and showed that Mandela never forgot the friendship of those nations, large and especially small, who supported him during the liberation struggle.

Cuba was one of them, as Cuba’s Ambassador to London Esther Armenteros can attest. Posted to Namibia and later South Africa, she was fortunate to meet Mandela three times. “‘How is Comrade Fidel?’ would always be his first question,” she recalled. But Armenteros will never forget her first meeting with him. “It was at a reception in Namibia’s State House. I walked through the door and there he was. I’m quite tall but still I had to look up into those piercing eyes. I was speechless. Having recovered, I asked him if I could take a photo with him to send to my children in Cuba. This is the most precious memento I cherish from my diplomatic life.”

The Algerian Ambassador Amar Abba also has his own memories of Mandela, who had an unusual connection to his country.

In 1962, on a trip to North Africa, Mandela received military training in the camps of the Algerian Liberation Army as he prepared for the armed struggle in South Africa.

Thirty years later, Abba attended an Ad Hoc AU summit in 1992 also attended by Mandela. So the Ambassador asked an ANC friend if he could meet the soon-to-be president.

An answer came back: at 07.30am in his hotel room. The meeting lasted half an hour during which Mandela reminisced about training with the Algerian freedom fighters in 1962.

“His memory was amazing,” recalled Abba. “He remembered the names of the officers who trained him. One of them, Noureddine Djoudi, later became Ambassador of Algeria to South Africa.”

The Bahamas was another nation cherished by Mandela. Using the platform of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in 1985, the then Prime Minister of The Bahamas Sir Lynden Pindling persuaded leaders to sign the Nassau Accord calling on South Africa to dismantle apartheid.

A special CHOGM in London the following year called for economic sanctions, which put the Bahamian Prime Minister on a collision course with the British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. But he stood firm and joined the African leaders in condemning Mrs Thatcher’s stance on South Africa.

Three years after his release from prison, Nelson Mandela paid a visit to the Bahamas to thank Sir Lynden Pindling for his leadership in the fight against apartheid.

The High Commissioner for the Bahamas, Bethel Eldred, who as a senior broadcaster had covered the anti-apartheid campaign, joined the long queue to meet the great man.

“When I was introduced to him my hand trembled as I shook his hand. He was most gracious and dignified. He was also kind enough to autograph my copy of A Long Walk to Freedom. That, and a photograph of the occasion are among my most cherished possessions.”

Canada was another nation that did not hesitate to impose sanctions, as High Commissioner Gordon Campbell explains: “In 1985, then Prime Minister Brian Mulroney was a leading and at times lonely international voice against the South African regime. Canada did not rely on words to voice its opposition, it chose deeds and imposed strict economic sanctions.”

Mandela visited Canada three months after his release from prison and was the first living recipient of honorary Canadian citizenship.

In his first address to Canada’s Parliament, Mandela thanked the Canadian people for their support with these words: “Your respect for diversity within your own society and your tolerant and civilised manner of dealing with the challenges of difference and diversity had always been our inspiration.”