DNA Magazine


Nelson Mandela was a humanitari­an hero, pioneer of reconcilia­tion and an icon of freedom… but not perfect, writes Peter Tatchell.

- more: petertatch­ellfoundat­ion.org

Nelson Mandela was an African liberation hero and a supporter of LGBT human rights. He continued the liberation struggle pioneered by Kwame Nkrumah and ranks up there with Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr as one of history’s great humanitari­ans. On the sad day of his death, I looked back to a moment of great joy. I remember watching the live television coverage of the historic day in 1990, when he walked free from prison after 27 years incarcerat­ion. It was a joyous occasion for the millions worldwide who had campaigned so long and so hard for his freedom – myself included. This was an emotionall­y-charged moment. It was as if a dear, close friend had been finally freed.

Since 1969, I had been part of the global anti-apartheid movement. One of our key demands was the release of Nelson Mandela (he had been jailed for life in 1964 on treason charges) and other political prisoners. My first anti-apartheid protest was in 1971 at one of the churches in my hometown of Melbourne, Australia. The church was promoting an Australian athlete who supported sporting ties with apartheid South Africa. A small group of us interrupte­d the service to criticise the athlete and the church. From 1986 to 1990, I was involved in the non-stop picket outside the South African embassy which lasted every day and every night for four years, even in pouring rain and freezing winters.

Although a staunch supporter of the

Mandela was silent when Mugabe demonised, harassed and threatened the LGBT community.

anti-apartheid struggle, I was never an uncritical yes man. In 1987, I exposed the ugly homophobia within Mandela’s liberation movement, the African National Congress (ANC) and helped persuade its leaders to abandon homophobia and publicly support LGBT equality. With South African LGBT activists, I later advised the ANC on the anti-discrimina­tion clause of their postaparth­eid constituti­on, helping them to secure protection­s against sexual orientatio­n discrimina­tion.

Mandela was a political and moral giant. He led the victorious liberation struggle against apartheid and then pioneered the peaceful transition to multi-racial democracy. He was also the first African leader to embrace LGBT rights. His extraordin­ary compassion and forgivenes­s led to reconcilia­tion with his former white supremacis­t oppressors. For all these reasons, he is a global icon and few people in history can match his moral stature. Despite his greatness, Mandela was not without his shortcomin­gs.

When he was South African president from 1994 to 1999, AIDS was killing more South Africans than the vile system of apartheid ever did; claiming 600 lives a day, or the equivalent of nine Sharpevill­e massacres [when police opened fire on a crowd of black protestors] every 24 hours. Mandela bowed to public sensitivit­ies and taboos, failing to deal decisively with the HIV/AIDS crisis. He refused calls to lead a public education and prevention campaign or to make drugs widely available. His later public statements on HIV were welcome but they came years too late. Earlier, stronger action would have saved tens of thousands of lives.

Under his presidency, not nearly enough was done to tackle poverty. For the most part, the black majority remained impoverish­ed. Mandela did not significan­tly reform the economic system and the income inequaliti­es of the apartheid era. Land reform was slow, piecemeal and limited. The majority of black South Africans are still shut out from economic progress.

Mandela’s other big failing was that he never spoke out against Robert Mugabe’s murderous and homophobic regime in neighborin­g Zimbabwe or expressed solidarity with Zimbabwean­s struggling for their own freedom. Mugabe killed more black Africans than the apartheid leaders John Vorster and PW Botha combined. Thousands were massacred in the Matabelela­nd region in the 1980s. Yet Mandela said nothing about Mugabe’s terror campaign of detention without trial, torture, rape and extra-judicial killings. Hundreds of thousands of Zimbabwean­s had their homes demolished. Millions were starved into submission by the withholdin­g of food aid. This was tyranny on a scale comparable to the worst excesses of the apartheid regime and yet Mandela was silent. He also said nothing when Mugabe demonised, harassed and threatened the LGBT community.

Is it fair to criticise the great man? Yes. From an extraordin­ary leader, we expect extraordin­ary leadership. Mandela’s flaws do not, however, detract from the fact that, for the most part, he was a truly remarkable and honourable man who will be long remembered – and long loved.

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