Simon Calder: How Nelson Mandela gave South Africa back to the world

Something to Declare

In the 1980s, when the world's repugnance at apartheid was mounting, the city of Gaborone one day found itself unaccountably in demand. British Airways applied for permission to fly from Heathrow to Botswana's capital. BA's plan had nothing to do with introducing UK citizens to the sublime landscapes and wildlife of Botswana; Gaborone was simply the nearest foreign city to Johannesburg, and the airline was taking action ahead of a possible international air ban.

The market BA wanted to protect was business travellers and "VFR" (visiting friends and relations) traffic. At the time, the number of British tourists to South Africa was tiny; however beautiful the country, no self-respecting traveller would support a nation that practised constitutional racism.

"No-fly" sanctions never took effect. But in the four years between the release from prison of Nelson Mandela in 1990 and his inauguration as president, South Africa moved in the traveller's perception from pariah state to dream destination, with welcoming people, superb wildlife, great beaches – and some rather nice wine that we'd been diligently boycotting for decades.

Nelson Mandela set out to repair a brutalised nation. He was not intent on attracting tourists. Yet that is exactly what he achieved. In 1989, anyone who announced plans for a holiday in South African would have been pilloried by polite society (I imagine; I never knew anyone who did such a thing). Within five years, the response would switch to admiration, and possibly envy, at the prospect of a visit to a once-haggard country re-invented as the Rainbow Nation.

No other leader has achieved such a remarkable change of direction in so short a time.

The contrast with South Africa's northern neighbour, Zimbabwe, is dramatic. As with apartheid-era South Africa, no one went to Southern Rhodesia while it was the domain of white supremacists. Once Robert Mugabe took power in 1980, and the nation adopted a pre-colonial identity, it was back on the map. Half-a-dozen disputed elections later, many of us are repelled by his brutal regime and the way his party has brought the nation to his knees. So, we'll visit the Victoria Falls, but only from the Zambian side.

Conscientious objection is a flawed business in tourism; many popular destinations have human-rights records ranging from dubious to despicable. I confess that it is easier to navigate through the political mire of acceptability when evil regimes are symbolised by individual politicians: Franco, the fascist who overthrew Spain's elected government and ruled a totalitarian state for 36 years to 1975, was an easy one to avoid (though millions of British package holidaymakers thought differently).

Thankfully, as Mandela showed, a great leader can reverse the damage. When he led his nation on a long walk to reconciliation, we joined the march and shared the joy. As the world calculates its debt to Mr Mandela, one small element is the gratitude of travellers. He liberated us from the chains of conscience to share the exhilaration of a journey to South Africa –and, along the way, to witness the salvation of forgiveness.

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