Paying Tribute to Nelson Mandela

Yesterday was an extraordinary Parliamentary occasion, with MPs from all parties united in paying tribute to Nelson Mandela.  The Speaker had cancelled all normal business, to enable as many MPs as possible to contribute, and following Prayers (with which the Commons starts business every day), tributes began at 2.30pm and went on until 10pm.  The record of all speeches can be found here.

Demand to speak exceeded the time available, but I was delighted to be able to make a short contribution around 9pm which is copied in full, below:

Debbie Abrahams (Oldham East and Saddleworth) (Lab): Thank you for calling me to speak, Mr Speaker. I reiterate what other Members have said: this has been an exceptional debate and I am really grateful to be able to take part in it.

My husband John was born in Cape Town, South Africa in 1952, during the apartheid era. He is a man of mixed-race and under the apartheid racial classification system he was defined as a Cape coloured. The daily indignities that he, his family and countless millions of other South Africans had to face had a profound effect on him: where he lived, the school he went to—not only were schools segregated; he was not allowed to start until he was seven years old—and the buses and trains on which he was allowed to travel all had a tremendous impact on him.

He talked very movingly recently at an Oldham school that he visited with me. He recounted the time when a young black man was involved in a road traffic accident. An ambulance came, but it was a white-only ambulance. They refused to treat him, went away and the young man died.

Relationships were, of course, monitored. People were not allowed to marry outside their racial group. We were not able to go back to South Africa until after the elections when Mandela came to power.

The great love of my husband’s life was cricket. Obviously, he had not met me at that time, although I think he would probably still say that cricket is the great love of his life! Sport was used to undermine people. John and his family, including his mum and dad, played in the street with sticks. There were no cricket clubs; they were segregated. In spite of that, John’s dad, Cec, along with Basil D’Oliveira, was selected to play for South Africa, but for a non-white South Africa. These dehumanising experiences had a profound effect on John and millions of others.

John felt much guilt at escaping from the horrors of apartheid when he came to live in this country in 1962, leaving others, including family members, to continue the struggle. His cousin was imprisoned during the regime, and that bore heavily on her life and that of the family.

For John and countless others Nelson Mandela stood as a beacon of hope. His drive for democracy and equality for all races was unrelenting, but what made him one of the most exceptional human beings of all time was that, in spite of all that he had been deprived of, the physical and emotional trauma that he was put through, he embraced that without bitterness or recrimination. It would have been so easy and understandable to have responded to that in a different way. I have no doubt that the relatively smooth transition from white minority rule to democratic South Africa was down to him.

Many people have said that Mandela made them want to do better and be better, and that is absolutely right. As much as he saw the goodness in others, we recognised the goodness in him. He was an archetypal leader, living the values he espoused with dignity, humility and honour, trying to make South Africa, and in turn the world, a better place.

The world is a better place as a result of Nelson Mandela. We have much to be grateful to him for and to learn from him. But it is far from perfect. Britain is still a very unequal country. Hon. Members on both sides of the House have been sincere in recognising his strengths and values, but words ring hollow if they are not followed up by action. I urge all hon. Members to consider that.

It is unacceptable in this country in this day and age that one in four young black men are unemployed, and one in 14 young white men are unemployed. We must do something about such inequalities. They persist even across groups with the same educational attainment levels. We must redouble our efforts to build a fairer, more just society. It would be an insult to Mandela’s memory not to do so. Madiba, with love and gratitude, rest well.


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