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Isles connections to Mandela’s South Africa

AHS pupil Megan Keppie volunteering in South Africa last year.

SINCE Nelson Mandela and his comrades in the African National Congress brought down the racist apartheid system, Shetland has forged some close ties with South Africa through the Global Classroom initiative. Neil Riddell considers the connections between the isles and the nascent “rainbow nation”.

In 1995 Anderson High School teachers Stuart Clubb and Gary Spence travelled to Cape Town to identify possible partner schools for the new Global Classroom project.

A local trade unionist recommended Harold Cressy High School, which joined the pioneering educational network for its official launch a year later.

Since then between 150 and 200 Shetland pupils have been involved in the exchange, many also welcoming South African students to the isles.

One of those pupils was Lewie Peterson. After hearing of Mandela’s death, he said it was “hard not to be sycophantic and gushing when speaking about him”.

“His achievements are legendary. Nobody is perfect in life, but he embodied what you want in a leader – patience, understanding, thoughtfulness, forgiveness and bravery. I’m thinking of all my friends in South Africa.”

Retired teacher Stewart Hay, who played a key role in setting up the Global Classroom said the links had allowed pupils to study South African history at advanced higher level using video conferencing.

Students visited annually to research material and to meet and interview political activists from the apartheid era.

“I am actually investigating the possibility of going to Cape Town next week to be there when the nation, and indeed world, says goodbye to its conscience,” Hay said. 

“Indeed my aim would be to get a student from each of the Global Classroom countries to be there.”

One highlight of the exchange came when Denis Goldberg, one of Mandela’s fellow ANC leaders, visited Shetland for a Global Classroom conference in June 2009.

Goldberg stood in the dock alongside Mandela during the famous Rivonia trial in 1963-4.

Here was a man able to give island students a first-hand account of how it felt to be in the courtroom when Mandela uttered these immortal words:

“During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to the struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination.

“I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities.

“It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

Nelson Mandela, who died aged 95 last week.

I’m sure I speak for everyone who heard Goldberg’s extraordinarily powerful talk in saying it was an experience never to be forgotten. It covered his post-war activism and imprisonment for over two decades – focusing on why what unites us is stronger than what divides us.

Goldberg also provided a harrowing description of what it felt like to be interrogated by police officers while staring down the barrel of a gun. The barrel comes to resemble a cannon, he said.

Shetland woman Mona McAlpine, who formed the From Shetland With Love charity for children orphaned or abandoned because of HIV/AIDS related illness and violence, spent many years working in South Africa as a midwife. She delivered two of Mandela’s grandchildren and met him on several occasions.

“Nelson came to visit [his daughter] and because of all the bodyguards and people surrounding him, I was called to meet him and escort him to the room she was lying in,” McAlpine told BBC Radio Shetland.

“It was quite a long walk to her room so we often had a chat. He was very charismatic – a lovely, lovely man… he was just a wonderful human being.”

You can hear the interview with McAlpine by Jane Moncrieff below, or download the file here.

{code playerAudio|7714|http://www.shetnews.co.uk/images/audio/131209_mandela.mp3}

It is interesting to reflect on the tributes spoken by our own political leaders in the days since Mandela’s death.

The words of UK prime minister David Cameron ring hollow – not only because he accepted a freebie trip to South Africa in 1989 funded by a firm that lobbied against the sanctions imposed against the Apartheid regime.

Shetland MSP Tavish Scott (left) and council convener Malcolm Bell signing the book of condolence in Lerwick town hall on Monday - Photo: BBC

Cameron may have subsequently said sorry for how catastrophically wrong the Tory party were about Apartheid, but it would be much easier to believe his apology was sincere if he began displaying some of the characteristics – compassion, justice and fairness – that he praised in Mandela on Thursday night.

It is true that, having taken up presidential office in 1995, Mandela did not achieve everything he hoped to accomplish. Years later he reflected, with regret, on having been too slow to act on the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

But his greatest achievement, having succeeded in dismantling an odious system, was ensuring that South Africa – for all its continued troubles – did not plunge into civil war and black-on-white reprisals.

That was in large measure down to the creation of a truth and reconciliation commission focused on forgiveness.

Perhaps the most valuable lesson for humanity lies in the dignity and grace Mandela showed when he was finally freed.

Here was a man who had spent more than a third of his adult life – 27 years in all, 18 of them on Robben Island – incarcerated.

Yet he walked out of those prison gates carrying less bitterness and resentment than many of us would after spending 10 minutes queuing in a busy supermarket.

* Shetland Islands Council has opened a book of condolences in Lerwick Town Hall to allow people to pay their respeccts to Mandela. It is open during office hours from Monday to Friday.