ORANIA, is a small, time-warp village in South Africa’s Northern Cape province; a small speck on the map in the scrubland edging the Karoo.
It was founded in 1991 by descendants of Hendrik Verwoerd, the architect of apartheid. It is, or at least was, run as a private town accepting whites only.
It represented a kind of living museum underpinned by racism and hatred posing as a cultural determination to preserve the Afrikaner traditions of self reliance that made the old South Africa what it was.
In 1995 Nelson Mandela visited this forlorn folk park and stood in silence, with his head bowed, at the grave of Verwoerd. Later he embraced Verwoerd’s then 95-year-old widow Bertie.
Many Irish people have spoken of building a new relationship with the north’s Unionists, one based on understanding and respect. However, it is unlikely that too many southern Nationalists have stood in silence, and with respect, at the statue of Edward Carson that so dominates the landscape at Stormont.
Mandela went to Orania in the same year he wore the Springbok jersey to Ellis Park for the rugby world cup final. He went to both places to try to build a future on the ashes of a bitter and evil past.
He succeeded beyond even, one must suspect, his own wildest dreams. Certainly he succeeded beyond anything that the most optimistic of the rest of us could have imagined when the Irish rugby team so controversially toured South Africa in 1981, when Mandela was still in prison.
As we mark the 20th anniversary of his release from Robben Island, his achievements, and his country’s achievements, can be described as remarkable.
Poverty and disadvantage still ravage very many, too many, South African lives but compared to some of the tragedies that followed the assertion of majority rule on that continent it is a success story.
Mandela came to represent something far outside the ordinary. He was a combination of charisma, forgiveness, soft and hard power, as well as a foundation stone for his county’s rejuvenation. His influence is international and is universally seen as humane and deeply inspirational. He is seen as a living saint by many and, for this very reason, derided by others.
By his actions, by his inaction too, and through his living his life as he did, he has enriched the idea of what it is to be human. He has shown that no matter how long the journey truth will prevail.
There are hardly a half a dozen others alive today who might be spoken of in the same terms.
His greatest achievement though is that he has shown us all, even the sad voortrekkers howling at the moon in Orania, that love always outweighs hatred.
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