First Nations peoples of Australia remember Mandela

When Nelson Mandela visited Australia months after his release from prison in 1990, he upset some Aboriginal activists. How do they feel today?

Nelson Mandela and Bob Hawke in 1990

Ron Sutton SBS 6 December 2013

(Transcript from World News Australia Radio)

The death of former South African anti-apartheid hero and then president Nelson Mandela has triggered international mourning on a scale rarely seen around the world.

Few people, if any, have touched lives across the globe quite like he has.

But for some within Australia's Aboriginal communities, that touch has known both good times and bad times.

24 years ago, Mr Mandela had a rough encounter with some of the country's best known Aboriginal activists.

Ron Sutton looks at what they have come came to feel about him, all these years later.

"What about Aborigines, Mr Mandela? Why doesn't someone say something about the Aboriginal people in this country?"

It was October 1990, eight months after Nelson Mandela's release from prison in South Africa, three-and-a-half years before he would be elected the country's president.

After 27 years as a political prisoner of South Africa's apartheid government, he was on an international tour to thank those whose pressure finally led to his release.

Australia's unions, then under Bob Hawke, had been among those supporters and now Mr Mandela had come to thank the man who became prime minister.

Tributes flow for Nelson Mandela, a 'giant for justice'

Michael Mansell

But Aboriginal Australia had also supported Mr Mandela, and, as he walked into Parliament House with Mr Hawke without raising their issues, Michael Mansell was angry.

After calling out to Mr Mandela, he told reporters the man had let his people down.

"He's made a terrible error of judgment in coming to Australia in the manner in which he has done. And we would have hoped that he would have made a statement whilst he was here about the treatment of Aboriginal people."

That was then.

Now, it is almost a quarter of a century down the road.

How does Michael Mansell, one of the staunchest defenders of Aboriginal rights for the past 40 years, feel today?

His answer comes in two parts -- again, then and now.

Looking back, he says he still believes Mr Mandela was wrong, starting with when he failed to ask Aboriginal people for permission to come, then did not insist on meeting them.

"My view is that Nelson Mandela is one of the great human rights activists but he was fallible. He made a miscalculation by not adhering to the principles of human rights, and he made a mistake. And all I was doing was giving him the opportunity to say to Bob Hawke, 'Well, when Aborigines come to the Parliament, do they get the same red carpet treatment that I'm getting, or do they get ushered around the corner?' And, 'If blacks are coming to power in South Africa, are blacks going to have power over themselves in Australia?' And, of course, he didn't."

Michael Mansell says Mr Mandela's African National Congress had asked the Aboriginal people not to do anything that promoted the apartheid government.

He says the ANC asked them to do nothing that could distract the government from the problems on the ground, too, and Aboriginal people almost totally adhered to both.

But, Mr Mansell says, he has no doubts today about the legacy Nelson Mandela has earned.

"The legacy that Nelson Mandela will leave is the determination of a man to fight for a human rights issue even if it meant staying (for) the rest of his life in prison, not being able to enjoy the same trappings of a good life that the rest of the world takes for granted. And there aren't many people prepared to make that sort of sacrifice. But he was prepared to do it."

Dr Gary Foley

Gary Foley was another veteran Aboriginal activist who spoke out at the time against Mr Mandela's visit.

He accused Mr Mandela - and the ANC - of hypocrisy, saying they were turning their backs on the very people who had put their necks on the line for them.

He accused them of currying favour and rubbing shoulders with people who had labelled them terrorists and were, in 1990, as he termed it, bandwagon jumpers.

Now, 23 years later, Dr Foley says he still feels the same way about what happened.

He says Nelson Mandela could have stopped to visit Aboriginal communities, as had founding Vanuatu prime minister Walter Lini and boxing legend Muhammad Ali.

"He didn't have to make any grand gestures. He didn't have to just go to the extent of completely humiliating the Australian government. All he needed to do was a little gesture, like Walter Lini did, you know? Walter Lini managed to walk that diplomatic tightrope and still be able to satisfy what little thing we asked him to do. We just said, 'Come and visit us. Come and visit our health service. Come and look at what we're doing. Say g'day. Let some of the Aboriginal people see you and, you know, maybe gain a degree of ... you know, extra degree of self-esteem through knowing that you would come here and just talk to us,' no matter how humble we were. It's one of the greatest moments in the history of the Aboriginal community in Melbourne was the day that Muhammad Ali just got out of the car one day in front of the Aboriginal Health Service, completely unexpected, unannounced, (and) walked in, said, 'Hello, everybody,' and sat there for three hours just talking to people."

Gary Foley says, like Mr Mandela, when he made his visit, Muhammad Ali had been the most famous black man on the planet.

But Dr Foley admits, even at the time of Mr Mandela's visit, a part of him understood how the pressures came to bear on the man.

And he says it has not changed -- and never did -- his feelings towards the man who, as a prisoner on South Africa's Robben Island, was one of his heroes in his teens.

"He's one of the great men of history, there's no two ways about it. I mean, you know ... just what he had to endure through all those years in Robben Island, in itself, is extraordinary enough, but to then go on and become president and all that sort of stuff, it's one of the great inspirational stories of history."

Professor Gracelyn Smallwood

Gracelyn Smallwood was another leading Aboriginal activist at the time, but she differs from Michael Mansell and Gary Foley.

She never did hold Nelson Mandela responsible for failing to address Aboriginal issues on his visit.

Now an associate professor at James Cook University in Townsville, in north Queensland, Dr Smallwood says he was trapped by powerful forces.

"Foley and Mansell, colleagues of mine -- and much older -- were at the peak of their political careers and were quite saddened, I suppose, that Mandela wasn't making the political statements for First Nations people in Australia. But my attitude at the time was that he's walked to freedom on such a ***hard road in his country, it would have been extremely difficult for him to walk that freedom in Australia when he was brought out. And not (brought out) by the political activists, because political activists didn't have the money. He was brought out by institutions and the government. So you certainly can't ****(bite) the hand that feeds you."

Mr Mansell says he always felt Mr Mandela made up for his perceived slight of Aboriginal people by later offering to help the Howard Government work with Native Title holders.

Gracelyn Smallwood felt Nelson Mandela reached out to the Aboriginal people in another way.

In 1997, he invited her to attend a huge 20th anniversary memorial for Steve Biko, another vital figure in South Africa's anti-apartheid struggle who died in custody.

Once she got there, he sent a security guard to offer her a seat on the main stage with him and a renowned American black activist of the 1960s, the former Stokely Carmichael.

Dr Smallwood says that showed her the regard for the plight of Australia's Aboriginal people from a man she considers to be a man for the ages.

"A man who changed the face of the world, not only in the area of reconciliation, but put an end to apartheid, but promoted that racism is quite an ugly disease."

Source: Phillip Adams, ABC Radio National 'Late Night Live'

South African journalist R.W.Johnson suggests that the outpooring over Nelson Mandela may be an enormous hunger by the developed world to find a hero/saint/leader from the third world to displace their feelings of guilt from slavery and colonisation. He suggested that the western world want absolution by washing the feet of the great man.