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  1. Politics
9 December 2013updated 26 Sep 2015 10:16am

Ed Miliband’s Commons tribute to Nelson Mandela: full text

"His extraordinary life calls on us all to keep on trying. For nobler ideals, higher purposes and for a bigger and not a smaller politics."

By New Statesman

Mr Speaker, today we remember the incomparable life of Nelson Mandela.

This House traditionally gathers to pay tribute to those who have led our country.

It is unusual for us to meet to honour the leader of another.

Why was it so essential that we should commemorate the life of President Mandela in this way?

For simple reasons.

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He is an enduring and unique symbol of courage, hope and the fight against injustice.

He teaches us the power of forgiveness, showing no bitterness towards his captors.

Just the love of a country that could be so much better if all of its people could be free.

And he demonstrates even to the most sceptical, the power of people and politics to change our world.

That is why we gather here today.

So on behalf of my Party, I send the deepest condolences to his widow Graca Machel, the Mandela family and all of the people of South Africa.

We mourn with them.

Today is an opportunity to remember the extraordinary story of Nelson Mandela’s life.

He led a movement – the ANC – that liberated his country.

He endured the suffering and sacrifice of 27 years in prison.

A son unable to attend his mother’s funeral.

A father unable to attend his son’s.

But in the face of such oppression his spirit never bent or broke.

Offered the chance of release in 1985, after more than 20 years in jail, on the condition he gave up the armed struggle, he refused.

“I cannot sell my birthright nor am I prepared to sell the birthright of my people to be free”, he said.

We honour him too because of the remarkable person the world found him to be after he walked out of prison in 1990, in those scenes we still remember today.

As his old comrade, Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, “suffering can embitter its victims but equally it can ennoble the sufferer.”

There can be nothing more noble than determining not to seek revenge on your oppressors but to seek reconciliation with them.

He truly was, as Archbishop Tutu said, an “icon of magnanimity”.

That is why he became not just the leader of a struggle but truly can be described as the father of a nation.

As we have seen in the tributes and emotion that he has inspired since his death in the black and the white communities in South Africa.

And we honour him too because for him the struggle against injustice was a story that never ended.

Having been an activist who became a President, he was a President who became an activist once again.

Campaigning on causes from debt relief to HIV/AIDS to the war in Iraq.

And we honour somebody too who wore his extraordinary heroism with the utmost humility.

A year after he gave up the Presidency, he came to the Labour Party Conference and described himself as “an unemployed pensioner with a criminal record.”

He famously said to Desmond Tutu who teased him for his taste in gaudy shirts, “it is pretty thick coming from a man who wears a dress in public.”

His empathy led him to seek out not the most famous person in the room but the least.

And his warmth made every person he met walk taller.

So we honour a man who showed the true meaning of struggle, courage, generosity and humanity.

But we gather here in our Parliament, in Britain, also to recognise that the history of our country was bound up with his struggle.

In a spirit of truth and reconciliation: South Africa was, after all, once a British colony.

But later Britain would become in Nelson Mandela’s own words “the second headquarters of our movement in exile.”

The Prime Minister and I and thousands of others went to sign the condolence book at South Africa House on Friday.

But it is easy to forget now that South Africa House was not always such a welcoming place for opponents of apartheid.

So we should also remember today the hundreds of thousands of people who were the anti-apartheid movement in Britain.

The people who stood month after month, year after year, on the steps of that embassy, when the cause seemed utterly futile.

The churches, trade unions, the campaigners who marched, who supported the struggle financially, culturally and in so many other ways.

The people who refused to buy South African produce and supported the call for sanctions.

People whose names we do not know from all over Britain who were part of that struggle.

As well as those who will be etched in history, including the leaders of the movement who found sanctuary in Britain, like Ruth First, Joe Slovo and others.

And, if the House will allow me, those in my own party who played such an important role, like Bob Hughes, now in the House of Lords, my Right Hon Friend the Member for Neath and so many more.

It may seem odd to a younger generation that apartheid survived as long as it did, given that now it seems to have been universally reviled the world over.

But of course, the truth and the history is very different.

The cause was highly unfashionable.

Often considered dangerous by those in authority and opposed by those in government.

The Prime Minister was right a few years ago to acknowledge the history.

It is in the spirit of what Nelson Mandela taught us, to acknowledge the truth about the past and without rancour to welcome the change that has come to pass.

But also to honour his legacy by acknowledging that in every country, including our own, the battle against racial injustice still needs to be won.

So we come here to honour the man, to acknowledge our history, and also for one final reason.

To recognise and uphold the universal values for which Nelson Mandela stood.

The dignity of every person, whatever their colour or creed.

Values of tolerance and respect for all.

And justice for all people, wherever they may live and whatever oppression they may face.

Nelson Mandela himself said: ‘I am not a saint, I am a sinner who keeps on trying’.

His extraordinary life calls on us all to keep on trying.

For nobler ideals, higher purposes and for a bigger and not a smaller politics.

Inspired by his example and the movement he led.

We mourn his loss.

We give thanks for his life.

And we honour his legacy.

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