Maybe it was because there was, for all the unanimity, some political edge to the proceedings. Maybe it was because Gillian Slovo, the daughter of those long-time South African comrades-in-arms of Nelson Mandela, Joe Slovo and Ruth First, was in the gallery to hear Ed Miliband pay tribute to her parents in an impressive speech. And maybe it was because some of the speakers managed to bring his memory alive with the shafts of colour and anecdotes to which Mandela’s sense of mischief and informality so easily lent itself. But this was not, in the end, quite the monotonous recycling of all the weekend eulogies it had been so easy to dread before the Commons session began.
Some of the speeches were a little too long. And those who had met Mandela were hardly, to put it mildly, bashful about saying so. But on Monday this was forgivable, if only because the man’s qualities were so obvious in vividly recountable personal contacts with almost everyone he met. Labour’s Peter Hain, the South African-raised veteran of the anti-apartheid struggle (as David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg all handsomely acknowledged) who did indeed know Mandela well, pointed out that Mandela never retreated “behind the barriers that most leaders and celebrities today erect around themselves”.
Gordon Brown, whose famously rare visits to the Commons make it easy to forget his power to hold the chamber when he is on form, eloquently declared the former South African President as true to Churchill’s mantra that courage is the greatest virtue of all. He quoted the passage Mandela had marked from Julius Caesar in the complete works of Shakespeare so treasured on Robben Island: “ Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant taste of death but once.”
And on Mandela’s fight against Aids he had been “an activist who became a President and a President who became an activist”. But Brown also got laughs across the House for describing how, when Prime Minister, he had been told by Mandela that he wanted the Queen to invite an African rain princess from his tribe to a reception at Buckingham Palace and had got nowhere via the diplomatic channels. “So he decided to telephone her personally,” said Brown. “The story goes that the conversation – words that only Mandela could use, began: ‘Hello, Elizabeth. How’s the Duke?’ And while the official minutes say that the Queen was non-committal, he got his way.”
David Cameron led a delegation consisting of Brown and his fellow prime ministers Tony Blair and Sir John Major – along with Ed Miliband – on a flight to South Africa for today’s memorial service. But on this day was inevitably, given the history, more of a Labour occasion than a Tory one, a point exemplified by the tears in Frank Dobson’s eyes as he paid his tribute.
David Cameron, who has already apologised for the Tories’ record of opposition to sanctions and to the ANC (if not specifically for his own expenses-paid trip to apartheid South Africa as a young party researcher) nevertheless rose to the occasion with a statesmanlike – and perhaps repentant – acknowledgement that: “ Progress is not just handed down as a gift; it is won through struggle, the struggle of men and women who refuse to accept the world as it is, but dream of what it can be.”
Like Cameron, Hain, in what was appropriately the most substantial speech of the day, quoted Mandela’s famous closing statement at the Rivonia trial in which he described his vision of a free, democratic, equal and harmonious South Africa as one for which “if needs be ... I am prepared to die”.
But he, too, recalled how Mandela had teased his wife Elizabeth about having “caught” her man and how he had sent a greeting to the Hain wedding apologising for not being able to come but adding: “ Perhaps I will be able to come next time!”
Hain did not shrink from mentioning the Tory party’s former “ craven indulgence towards apartheid’s rulers”, while adding that if Mandela could forgive his oppressors he could forgive his opponents, too. But it did “stick in the craw” when Lord Tebbit and Charles Moore had, in recent days, claimed “that their complicity with apartheid ... somehow brought about its end”. That was not the view Mandela had taken, he said.
While also lavishing praise on Mandela, the former Tory Foreign Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind triggered rumbles on the Labour benches when he said that F W de Kerk had in some ways faced the more difficult task because he had had to give away power. Nick Clegg was workmanlike but curiously did not spell out the Liberal Party’s role in opposing apartheid – even Peter Hain was once a young Liberal – or that Mandela had met Jo Grimond as well as Hugh Gaitskell and Denis Healey on his pre-incarceration visit to London in 1962.
The liberal Tory Alistair Burt, who had made several visits to South Africa with Christian groups seeking a peaceful end to apartheid, suggested that a fitting legacy for Mandela would be for world leaders to apply “reconciliation and forgiveness” in just one of the conflicts that he knew “only too well” from his three-and-a-half years at the Foreign Office. Could he have been thinking of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in which he was much engaged as a Foreign Office minister? The Israeli Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu will not be joining other leaders, including President Rouhani of Iran or the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, in South Africa today.
But it was over in the Lords that Neil Kinnock, a long-time supporter of the anti-apartheid movement, had the sharpest message for the future of South Africa. He urged the present leadership to embrace reform while combating the “self indulgence and corruption which so retards Mandela’s beloved country and its people”. If they did not do so Nelson Mandela would be their “brilliant, brave but unrequited dead hero”.
Video: Chuka Umunna on Mandela