Last night was pretty special. After 32 years, some of us returned to the streets and the field of battle at the former Rugby Park – now Waikato Stadium – to pay respects to Nelson Mandela and to the campaign against apartheid. It was a balmy soft and relaxed evening, with a nearly full moon – unlike July 25th 1981, when it was grey, cold and ultimately terrifying. The most remarkable moment last night was when Deputy Head of the Red Squad, Ross Meurant, stepped up to the microphone. He was present to acknowledge both Nelson Mandela and his journey of realisation about the distorted police culture in 1981, when they were used by the state to violently repel our protests against apartheid. A few people grumbled as he began to speak, but at the end John Minto hugged him and we clapped. This was a Mandela moment. Kevin Hague had reminded us in an earlier speech of some of the teachings of Nelson Mandela, notably the value of forgiveness. The reviled and often marginalised leadership embodied by John Minto showed its true colours of principled compassion and generous humanity towards an historical foe. John was a humble and welcoming MC, which was no surprise to the veterans of 1981 – he’s always been that person.
Speeches from Annette Sykes and Betty Sio reminded us of the growing economic apartheid and unresolved racist power issues in our own country. The younger generation learned new stories and heard old songs. I wished my partner could have sat there on that field with me last night as he still carries scars on his head from 1981, and I can still remember the people bleeding in the streets as we ran for sanctuary. But as we sang the South African national anthem incredibly badly, I felt lucky to belong to a generation who had stood up for what was right, and through that struggle learned about the need to confront our own racism. Thank you Nelson Mandela, thank you everyone who came last night and lit a candle for freedom and forgiveness and the ongoing work for justice.