Mandela tributes show links between the national liberation struggles in South Africa and Ireland

Nelson Mandela with Gerry Adams

By Frances Davis

One of the most inspiring moments in the days of tribute following the death of  Nelson Mandela has been the way in which it has highlighted the connections between the leaderships of national liberation struggles spanning continents – from South African to Cuba and to Ireland. The critical role of the Cuban leadership and people in helping defeat apartheid was given significant prominence in South Africa at the memorial service with the speech and presence of President Raul Castro.

In addition, and of particular note for the left here, was the prominence given to the connection between the Sinn Fein leadership and the ANC, where decades-long links with the struggle against apartheid and Irish republicans came to the fore.

Most notable was the role given to Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams, and party colleague Richard McAuley, who not only attended the funeral service and graveside service, but who formed part of the Guard of Honour at the official ANC send off for the remains of Nelson Mandela Madiba’ from Pretoria, which Adams described as an honour and privilege’. You can watch and hear part of the official ANC send off and Guard of Honour here.

Earlier, in Ireland, Gerry Adams also made a speech to the Dail, in which he spoke not only about Sinn Fein’s strong links to the ANC, but also cites a leading ANC figure who spoke of the role between the Irish Republican movement and the ANC’s armed wing Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK). He also speaks about the strong connection and solidarity between Mandela and the IRA political prisoners on hunger strike at the time, when he wrote on his calendar on 5 May 1981 IRA martyr Bobby Sands dies’, a tribute Adams rightly says which recognises the bond of those who struggle for justice’ and noting that Walter Sisulu had later told Adams notes that the ANC prisoners marked and commemorated each of the hunger strikers who died. After the fall of apartheid a memorial to the Hunger Strike was later erected on Robben Island as a permanent testimony to that connection. (Notably, a similar memorial to the Hunger Strike also stands in Victor Hugo Square in Havana, unveiled by Fidel Castro in 2001).

We reproduce below the full text of Gerry Adams’ speech (which can also be watched here):

Ba mhaith liom mo chombhrón a thabhairt do chlann an iar-Uachtarán Mandela, Uachtarán Zuma, daoine ón Aifric Theas, agus pobal na hAfraice in Éirinn.
Taoiseach, Nelson Mandela ‘Madiba’ was truly remarkable.
He was a Freedom Fighter, a political prisoner, a negotiator, a healer, a peacemaker, a father, a grandfather and a husband.
He was a friend to those engaged in the struggle for justice across the globe.
He believed in Ubuntu (we are all interconnected and a person cannot exist separate from society; we all have responsibilities to each other).
He was a friend to the people of Ireland and many people here were his friends, particularly the heroic Dunnes Store strikers who took a stand when those in power did not.
The injustice of apartheid was an obscenity – an obscenity to humanity – and in terms of our own experience Vorster – an apartheid Minister in South Africa once said famously that he would swap all of the apartheid laws for one clause of the infamous Special Powers Act in the north.
The ANC was banned, censored and political actions were quashed.
In the 1950’s and early 60’s ANC activists debated how best to challenge the state.
Speaking of that period, Mandela said, ‘We have always believed in non-violence as a tactic; where conditions demanded that we should use non-violence we would do so; where the conditions demanded that we should depart from non-violence we would do so.’
He came to the opinion that the ANC “had no alternative to armed and violent resistance.” His words not mine.
In 1961 along with Walter Sisulu and Joe Slovo, Madiba co-founded and became Chairman of the armed organisation Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), known as MK.
MK engaged in military actions against the South African regime through the period of his imprisonment and following his release.
And in jail for those decades, on Robben Island, Madiba maintained his international perspective.
In his cell, in common with all political prisoners, he was allowed as a privilege a calendar on which he marked significant events.
On the 5th May 1981 a simple single line is written: ‘IRA martyr Bobby Sands dies.’
A tribute, hand written, on a paper calendar on a cell wall in South Africa which recognises the bond of those who struggle for justice.
His note on that prison wall is a recognition of the courage and self-sacrifice of the 10 republican hunger strikers of our time.
Walter Sisulu later told me that all of the ANC prisoners marked and commemorated each of the hunger strikers who died, including Kieran Doherty TD.
Today the world is in mourning.
The people of South Africa have lost their leader, their father and humanity has lost our greatest statesman.
Madiba was a leader who by his courage demonstrated that it is possible to reconcile differences.
By his example he showed us that it is possible to build peace out of conflict; something we try to do in our own island; and that a better and more equal future based on fairness is possible, and that unity can be forged out of division.
In the hard years when the western powers were against him, when he was vilified as a terrorist; when he was denounced as a criminal, he kept the faith.
He showed perseverance and vision.
There are lessons in all of this for us but particularly for the people of the island of Ireland, of all persuasions, as we continue the necessary and challenging task of building the peace.
I first saw Nelson Mandela when he visited Dublin in 1990.
That was the day the Irish soccer team returned home. And when Madiba appeared a section of the crowd began to chant ‘Ooh ahh Paul McGrath’s Da’.
So, the good humour of Ireland shone through.
In 1995 myself, and several other Sinn Féin activists travelled to South Africa at the invitation of the ANC to speak to senior figures who had been centrally involved in the process of negotiations.
That was when I met Madiba for the first time.
One of the first demonstrations I ever attended was in Dublin against apartheid and the visit of the Springbok Rugby team. And I have been a long-time supporter of the Anti-apartheid movement.
So I was delighted to be meeting with one of my heroes.
During the conflict there was a close working relationship between Irish republicans and the ANC.
And the late Kader Asmal who did tremendous work in the leadership of the Irish anti-apartheid movement, along with his wife Louise, and who was not a supporter of the IRA in his book mentioned by Minister Burton, tells how the IRA provided practical training and advice and assistance with military operations to MK.
Kader says that the famous attack of May 31st 1980 on Sasal Oil Refinery near J’Burg was carried out with the assistance of the Irish Republican Army.
Walter Sisulu, Cyril Ramaphosa, Thabo Mbeki, Ronnie Kasrils and many others who were in the leadership of the ANC were pleased to remember the long commitment, as was Madiba himself, of Irish republicans to their cause.
And of course for our group the highlight of the very intense process of meetings was with Madiba.
He was self-effacing, he was modest, he was totally relaxed and he was very focused.
He was also very tough, stubborn, determined and committed as he needed to be to survive apartheid; to survive over two and a half decades in prison with hard labour.
He was immovable on core principles, on core values, on core issues but pragmatic on tactics and other matters.
It is also interesting that the British government at the time lobbied hard for Madiba not to meet me.
And when it was clear that the ANC was determined and Madiba was determined that the visit should go ahead the British lobbied for no handshake or photograph.
He ignored them.
So, I along with other Sinn Féin representatives have been privileged and deeply honoured to meet Madiba many times after that; in South Africa, here in Ireland and Britain.
Ba pribhiléid mór é dom gur bhuail mé leis cúpla uair.
He was always hugely supportive of the Irish peace process.
On several occasions senior ANC and former MK activists visited Ireland and went into the prisons and talked to republican prisoners about the peace process.
He had an enormous depth of understanding of the twists and turns of our process.
And he knew there was an onus on governments, as well as those involved in struggle, to resolve issues.
I believe as all thinking people believe that there is an onus “to create the necessary environment for peaceful solutions.”
Despite his age and even when I last met with him, despite his increased physical frailty his mind was as sharp as a razor; conversant with world affairs and with the affairs of his own continent, with for example the injustice of the war in Iraq or Afghanistan.
He was a very remarkable human being.
I mo thuairim ba é Nelson Mandela ceann de na ceannairí is fearr a raibh riamh ann. ‘Sé mo laoch. Mo Ghile Mear.
All of us remember the very special occasion of the Special Olympics that were held here in 2003.
It was such a marvellous, wonderful historic event and we met afterwards and Madiba was taken by all of the young athletes that he had met in the course of that great event as he was about issues to do with the north, and the need for governments to move on the necessary business of building peace.
He will continue to inspire. He will continue in death as he did while alive to encourage oppressed peoples everywhere.
And in that way his legacy will live on.
You don’t have to be a Nelson Mandela, you don’t have to be a Madiba, we only have to do the small things we can do to make things better for those who suffer from injustice, for those who are deprived, for those who don’t have freedom.
If we all did that in a small way then those heroes like he would not have to do the big things that they have had to do.
Walter Sisulu was a wonderful man. A life long conspirator, political prisoner, and comrade to Nelson Mandela and when he died – any of you have the time you should read Mandela’s farewell – and I repeat just one line of it for this occasion.
Go well, Rest in Peace, Madiba Hero among heroes.’

It is also worth noting what was said by President Zuma, giving the oration as Gerry Adams and Richard McAuley stood as Guards of Honour, which make important points about Mandela’s role and that of the relationship between armed struggle and peace. It is an important truth about Mandela’s role, and his strategic thinking in the struggle, in particular because of the way the British media has attempted to obscure it.

In his speech he notes that much as we have followed the non-violent struggle… it was clear that the enemy was not going to respond to this, we therefore have to use a different language that would be understood’. He speaks of Mandela’s leadership role as the struggle developed, playing a major role’, as a strategist: Madiba had the gift of seeing things and [would] concentrate on what he had seen, and talk about and clarify it; good in working on tactics and indeed a powerful legal person.’ He described Madiba the man of peace, but the revolutionary, [who] was not prepared to wait for peace one day to come because we talk about it, who felt we needed to take action. And he was one of those who was in the leadership of action. At times people are mistaken that for the ANC to declare armed struggle it was becoming an organisation that was not interested in peace. But no, the ANC was saying that in order to quicken peace in South Africa we had to take that decision.’ A point with strong parallels to Ireland’s national liberation struggle, he underlines the point which captures that policy’, that the armed struggle was necessary for us to get to peace and freedom’.

These strong connections between the leaderships of the national liberation struggles in Ireland and South Africa – and indeed Cuba – serve as an inspiration and a high point in the international class struggle.