In Britain, the death of Nelson Mandela has been met with universal praise for his achievements and for his character, which imbued him with a moral authority unmatched by anyone else alive.
Some of those now eulogising Mandela stand accused of hypocrisy because their attitude towards him and the apartheid regime was very different in the years before Mandela’s release in 1990. Listening to what is being said now, one might think that nobody in Britain ever supported apartheid but, of course, that is not true. Hopefully, some erstwhile apartheid supporters now sincerely regret their previous stance.
Apartheid is an example of something which is now recognised as an absolutely clear cut moral evil but which in the past a significant number of people – particularly powerful people - felt able to justify or at least not oppose. Other examples in Britain over the last two centuries include slavery, restricting the franchise to rich males, colonialism and various forms of discrimination.
Mandela said – “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” We need to be teaching our children to think, question and challenge. This would equip them to recognise such moral issues.
There are plenty of such issues facing us right now. One example, admittedly not as easy to grasp as apartheid, is the existence of abject, degrading poverty – in Britain and globally - in the midst of great wealth, which is easily more than sufficient to alleviate it. As Mandela also said – “Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity; it is an act of justice. Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings.”
Mandela, who himself achieved what seemed impossible, also had something to say to those who might think the very idea of abolishing such poverty is utopian nonsense - “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”
Imagine that one day this injustice has been substantially addressed. Then, many people, who had supported or gone along with things as they were, would probably tell their children - “It was terrible – in Britain people were relying on food banks and many could not afford heating or were homeless. And in many countries in Africa and Asia it was far worse, people were actually starving. And all the time there was plenty of money around. I always knew it was wrong.”
We should take inspiration from a man like Nelson Mandela and at least oppose injustice at the time when our support might actually make a difference, not when the issue has been safely consigned to the history books.