1984. Tasmania. Nelson Mandela’s fight for freedom had hit the music charts, and was likely blasting on the radio of the ‘Big Bus’ – the first of a three-bus-long journey to school.
At the age of seven, I wouldn’t have known what ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ meant. But I understood the principles of terror.
Early in the morning, we’d be trudging through a kilometre of frost to encounter the two frosty sisters from the dairy farm next door.
Possibly they were going to slice the fingers from my fingerless gloves, or drown me in the lake with the kittens. I don’t remember the specific threat, just that I was afraid. Very afraid.
And that was before Mr Sim’s coach thundered up, and I had to face the Big Kids at the back of the bus.
“Whadda you lookin’ at?” they’d sneer, and tell me to piss off down the front, or else…
I could tell my two older siblings were also scared, or at least, they were too busy trying to fit in to come to my defence.
Until then, I’d always thought the big kids were supposed to protect the little ones.
It was a wide awakening…me, at night, trying to think of a solution to my woe.
Finally, I consulted Mum for advice. She, in turn, consulted the repository of all wisdom – Uncle Arthur’s Bedtime Stories.
The next day I was sent to the bus stop with a brown paper bag full of blackberry pies.
As the sneering sisters turned on me, I held up my white flag.
“It’s for you…(Mum made them),” I mumbled, not daring to meet their gaze. I could feel my siblings’ mortified stupor cowering somewhere behind me.
The sisters took the offering, and inspected it for poison.
The moment their eyes grew wide, I knew it was a winner.
“But, why?” they breathed. I shrugged. “Thank you. That’s so nice…”
In my mind, they got on the bus and bragged to their friends about the pie they scored. But I’m not sure that really happened.
What I do know is we all knew that they knew they didn’t deserve it. And from that moment on, peace reigned at the bus stop.
When I think back on that memory now, it seems kind of quaint and embarrassingly naïve. If that same thing happened today, would the bullies back down. Or would they kick you in the guts for trying to placate them?
I’m scared of the world we live in.
A world where leaders pay lip service to the greatness of a man who understood human rights as more than just a dusty document.
A world where leaders think that inventing the term ‘illegal refugee’ justifies the persecution of people fleeing from tyranny.
A world where freedom and democracy are rights of the first world to deny.
We preach the principles of ‘turn the other cheek’ – as long as it’s not ours.
But Mandela knew better. He didn’t turn the other cheek. He stood his ground. Held his enemies in a firm embrace.
Shamed them, with pure decency, and took a nation with him while he did.
It takes a giant to do that.
My actions in 1984 were not noble, loving or even forgiving. It was self-preservation. Had they actually caused me harm, I’d have been blubbering behind a tree or quietly plotting their revenge. Not giving pie.
But the principle is the same. In both cases, peace was won because the people in the wrong had the graciousness to know when to back down.
Bob Geldof, in his tribute to Mandela, writes:
“…who could have imagined the humility, the dignity and forgiveness that Mandela displayed to his oppressors upon his final total success?
In private he pitied them. He knew precisely what he was doing. One visitor said: ‘Mr President you have given great dignity to the black people.’ Madiba replied instantly (and you can hear the inimitable cadence in his reply): ‘No, young man, you are wrong. I have given dignity to the white man. There is no dignity in the oppressor.’”
As a globe, do we have what it takes to honour his memory? Can we empathise with ‘the other’ enough to open our arms to their pain? Are we brave enough to eat the humble pie?