By Éamonn Meehan, Trócaire Executive Director
I met Nelson Mandela at an event in Dublin in the late 1990s. During a questions and answers session with the audience, somebody asked him what Ireland and the EU could do to help Africa.
His answer surprised everybody. He said that the most important thing Europe could do was to remind African leaders that they are at the service of their people; that power is not for their own good and that they must learn to know when to step down.
In many ways, that short answer summarised much of Nelson Mandela’s legacy: a true democrat, a leader who believed in justice and equality for all, and a man who chose reconciliation with his enemies over bitterness and revenge.
Nelson Mandela taught us so many lessons about courage and consistency. He was an icon for humanity who personified the notion that good can triumph even against the greatest odds.
Trócaire was the focal point for much of Ireland’s objections to the racist South African regime. When Trócaire was established in 1973, South Africa became the immediate focus for much of the organisation’s work.
One of the organisation’s earliest actions was to donate £2,000 to fund the relocation of a carpentry school for young black people that had to be closed when the area it was in was re-zoned ‘whites only’.
Trócaire began to fund literacy and training courses for black trade union workers. In Ireland, the agency was outspoken in its condemnation of tacit support for apartheid, calling for a full ban on trade with South Africa.
Caption: top left – Nelson Mandela, top right – Trócaire anti-apartheid campaign poster, bottom – Dunnes workers strike to end sale of South African goods in 1986
In 1986, following the courageous actions of young Dunnes Stores workers in Ireland who went on strike rather than handle South African produce, the Irish government announced a ban on imports of fruit and vegetables from the apartheid state.
At this stage, Trócaire was helping to support the families of 360,000 striking South African mine workers. By the late 1980s, Trócaire was donating roughly £300,000 per year to projects in South Africa.
As is often the case, Ireland’s influence was far greater than its small size should allow.
The world has lost one of its true giants. In life, Nelson Mandela symbolised our common humanity; in death he again unites people of all faiths, of all colours and of all backgrounds.
While mourning his passing, we should also celebrate his life and commit ourselves to the ideals he embodied. As long as there are people willing to pay huge personal sacrifices to bring justice to others, Nelson Mandela’s spirit will never die.