President of the Republic of Fiji
Centenary Church Monday, 16th December, 2013
SUVA 12.30p.m.

Today we give thanks for the life of a great man, a man who many of us never met, yet who touched us all.

Many millions of words have been uttered and written across the world over the past eleven days in tribute to Nelson Mandela. He was a towering figure of the 20th century, among the select few who can be called truly great because of their shining moral leadership.

Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Madiba. They are beacons of moral clarity in a world that more often values power and might. They set a standard against which all other leaders are judged. They inspire, they unify, they embody the very best qualities of humanity – courage, perseverance, success against the odds.

I do not need to repeat what we all know about Nelson Mandela’s achievements – his struggle for justice for all South Africans, his 27 years in prison, his emergence to win the country’s first truly democratic election, his five years as President of the Republic of South Africa.

All this is well known.

Indeed, Nelson Mandela was, and will remain, a global icon - the recipient of more than 260 awards during his lifetime, including the Nobel Peace Prize which was jointly awarded to him and a former President FW de Klerk in 1993 for their roles in ending apartheid.

It would be remiss of me if i did not include at the outset of this tribute the three women in his life – his wives – Evelyn Mase, Winnifred Madikizela, Graca Machel – who gave him strength and faith and the will to carry on against all odds at different stages of his life.

What I now want to try to do, instead, is to put into a few simple words what Nelson Mandela meant to us as Fijians.

I met Nelson Mandela on two occasions and spoke to him briefly in Cape Town, South Africa when I represented Fiji at the British Commonwealth Ex-Servicemen’s league meeting, and during his state visit to London when I was Ambassador to the United Kingdom. I encountered a humble man of great presence and an infectious personality. The moments were fleeting but they will ever be vividly etched in my memory.

There was something profound, a “quality of qualities” about Nelson Mandela that resonated with Fijians. And that was his amazing capacity for forgiveness.

The whole world expected South Africa to erupt in a frenzy of violent revenge after the long years of apartheid. So many years of cruel repression, so many lives lost.

It would have been only natural for there to be an intense period of payback but it never happened. And largely because of this one man.

Nelson Mandela set aside his own sense of grievance about being held for more than a quarter of a century behind bars, the lost years without his family and all the humiliation that had been piled upon him. And he embraced his enemy.

Grown men who were part of the hated former regime burst into tears when they recount the way in which the man they called “the chief” asked them to stay on and serve him as President.
This act of personal forgiveness was the single noblest event of Nelson Mandela’s long life and it had a stunning impact.

Because one man’s example encouraged an entire nation to do the same. The bloodbath that many had predicted did not eventuate. Instead, the “Rainbow Nation” was born – a united South Africa.

We watched in awe as one man led the entire nation in a collective act of forgiveness and reconciliation and inclusion, the scale of which the world has never seen. It resonated with us. It was the kind of thing we would like to think we are capable of. It is a lesson, of course, for our own times.

Indeed, Nelson Mandela’s rich and honourable life provides an opportunity for us to reflect on other lessons we can learn from his unflinching belief in the general goodness of the human spirit.

From his belief that all humans are created equal and are endowed with the capacity to love and understand their neighbours and fellow citizens.

Famously, Madiba said, and I quote, “no one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” Unquote.

Such a simple sentiment, but a revolutionary one at that time in South Africa, which was then one of the most divided and tense countries in the world.

It was Madiba’s faith in this simple truth that was at the very core of his efforts to bridge division and build a united nation.

It was what underlined his belief that there was no reason that any person should face discrimination of any sort, for any reason, at the hands of his or her fellow citizens.

Years later, this is one of the central tenets of the new South Africa. And as a result, today there is a new sense of equality, nationhood and common purpose in that country that at one stage seemed impossible.

My fellow Fijians, as we embark on our own path under our new Constitution, I urge each of us to remember Madiba’s words. We too must embrace this way of thinking if we are to build a nation that is more just, more equal, and more united.

Fundamental and true equality must be the foundation of the new Fiji. Together, we must say, “discrimination and inequality, of any kind, no longer have a place here, just as they no longer have a place in South Africa.”

As Fiji moves forward into a new era of substantive equality and justice for all, let us all commit ourselves to following the path lit by Madiba. To embrace each other and embrace a new future. To move forward together as one people, one nation.

To embrace true democracy, true equality, compassion, love, unity, and respect for all Fijians, no matter what their ethnicity, religion, gender or background.

For the life of Nelson Mandela – this colossus who radiated such light that all the tempests of oppression, discrimination, inequality and apartheid, could not for one moment dim! – and his example to the world, thanks be to God.