Gareth Evans: Mandela Was The Most Decent Man I Have Ever Met

Gareth Evans
December 06, 2013

When Nelson Mandela was released from prison in February 1990, one of his most immediate priorities was to thank those who had been most supportive of the anti­-apartheid movement. Australia ranked high on his list, not just for our long-standing trade, sports and cultural boycotts – which applied psychological pressure without forcing a breakthrough – but for the leadership role the Hawke government played in the late 1980s in leading the global charge on financial sanctions, which ultimately proved decisive.

So it was that I found myself, as foreign minister, just a few days later, sitting face to face with the legend in the presidential ­mansion in Zambia, where he had flown to meet his ANC colleagues in exile and plan the transition to democracy. I was one of the first foreign officials to meet him, and it was a meeting about which I remember being unusually nervous.

Madiba – as he is affectionately called by South Africans – had long been a personal hero to me, as to so many of my generation, since my days as a student activist demonstrating against Springbok tours. His Rivonia trial speech nearly three decades earlier remained one of the most thrilling affirmations of the human spirit ever uttered: “A free society . . . is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” How could the reality possibly match the expectation?

I need not have worried. As we sat there, just the two of us, chatting away comfortably for an hour or more about everything from UN sanctions to the end of the Cold War to our children’s careers, I was, like so many others since – including the many thousands of Australians he saw and spoke to during his wonderful visit here a few months later – totally captivated. By that huge luminescent smile, by his unending charm and grace, the lucid intelligence with which he discussed his country’s transition problems, but above all by that extraordinary, almost unbelievable, lack of bitterness toward his Afrikaner jailers who imprisoned him for 27 years.

Of all the meetings with all the leaders and other international figures around the world I have had, during all my years of public life, there is no question that this was the most exhilarating.

Nelson Mandela remains simply the most impressive and decent human being I have ever met, or am ever likely to meet.

He was the kind of leader who comes along once in a lifetime. Without him South Africa would, eventually, have ended the nightmare of apartheid – its enforcers were beyond the civilised pale, and the world’s patience with them had run out – but the transition would have been long, ugly and bloody. FW de Klerk, as the Afrikaner leader, came to understand – late, but not too late – what the moment demanded, and deserved to share the Nobel Prize. But it was the towering moral and political leadership shown by Mandela that made the difference.

When it comes to national leadership at times of fragility and transition, so much seems to depend just on the luck of the draw. Will a country find itself with a Milosevic or Mugabe; an Ataturk or an Arafat; a Rabin who can see and seize the moment, and change course, or someone who never will?

South Africa was lucky enough to have Nelson Mandela, and his memory will be cherished as long as history continues to be written.


Originally published by Financial Review.

Photo by Debris2008.


PN member Professor Gareth Evans was Australia’s Foreign Minister from 1988 to 1996 and is currently serving as Chancellor of the Australian National University. As a member of the International Task Force on Preventive Diplomacy, composed of 24 outstanding experts and practitioners in the field of conflict prevention and resolution, he was one of the initiators of the Parliamentarians Network for Conflict Prevention.

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