Nelson Mandela was a towering figure, Prime Minister David Cameron said today.
Paying tribute to the former South African president, Mr Cameron told the House of Commons the Union and South African flags would fly at half-mast on Sunday - the day of Mr Mandela’s funeral.
Mr Cameron said: “Nelson Mandela was a towering figure in our lifetime - a pivotal figure in the history of South Africa and the world - and it is right that we meet in this Parliament to pay tribute to his character, his achievements and his legacy.”
Mr Cameron said that with Labour Party leader Ed Miliband and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, he would fly to South Africa tonight for a memorial service to Mr Mandela, who died last Thursday aged 95. The Prince of Wales would attend Mr Mandela’s funeral, MPs were told.
The Prime Minister added: “When looking back over history it can be easy to see victories over prejudice and hatred as somehow inevitable.
“As the years lengthen and events recede, it can seem as though the natural tide of progress continually bears humanity ever upwards, away from brutality and darkness and towards something better. But it is not so.
“Progress is not just handed down as a gift, it is won through struggle - the struggle of men and women who believe things can be better, who refuse to accept the world as it is but dream of what it can be. Nelson Mandela was the embodiment of that struggle.
“He did not see himself as the helpless victim of history - he wrote it.”
Mr Cameron added: “We must never forget the evil of Apartheid and its effect on every day life. Separate benches, separate buses, separate schools - even separate pews in church. Inter-racial relationships criminalised, pass laws and banning orders, a whole language of segregation that expressed man’s inhumanity to man.
“Nelson Mandela’s struggle was made ever more vital by acts of extreme brutality, like at Sharpeville in Soweto on behalf of the South African authorities. His was a journey that spanned six decades, from his activism in the 40s and 50s, through nearly three decades of incarceration, through to his negotiations that led to the end of Apartheid and his election to the highest office in South Africa.
“It was, as he said, ‘a long walk to freedom’. As a prisoner in a cell measuring 7ft by eight, there must have been times that Nelson Mandela must have felt his fists were beating against a wall that would not be moved. But he never wavered.
“As he famously said at his Rivonia trial, he wanted to live for and achieve the ideal of a democratic and free society. But it was also an ideal for which, as he said very clearly, he was prepared to die.
“Even after long years of imprisonment he rejected offers of freedom until they had removed all conditions that would have prevented his struggle for justice. What sustained him throughout all was a belief in human dignity - that no-one is naturally superior over anyone else, that each person has inherent worth.
“As he said so powerfully when he came to speak in this Parliament - ‘in the end the cries of the infant who dies because of hunger or because a machete has slit open its stomach will penetrate the noises of the modern city and its sealed windows to say ‘am I not human too?’”
“Nelson Mandela’s cries for justice pierced the conscience of people around the world.”
Mr Cameron also paid tribute to Labour former cabinet minister Peter Hain, who was influential in the campaign against apartheid.
He also paid tribute to the millions of anti-apartheid campaigners across the UK who held mass concerts and other quiet shows of solidarity in the fight against South Africa’s regime. Mr Cameron said that because of those campaigns Mr Mandela had a “real warmth for the UK”.
Mr Cameron added: “The character of Nelson Mandela was shown not only in the determination with which he fought but in the grace with which he won.
“Nearly three decades in prison could so easily have left him bitter. On his release he could have meted out vengeance on those who had done him so much wrong.
“But perhaps the most remarkable chapter of Mandela’s story is how he took the opposite path. In victory he did indeed choose magnanimity. Indeed with characteristic generosity he invited his own former jailer to come to his presidential inauguration.
“He employed as his private secretary a young Afrikaner woman who became his confidant and in an image that is indelibly printed on our minds, he roused his country behind the Springboks in the most powerful gesture of reconciliation.
“His government pursued a very deliberate policy of forgiveness. FW de Klerk and other national party officials were brought in to his government of national unity.
“The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established to break the spiral of recrimination and violence. These were astonishingly brave moves.
“Mandela’s desperate hope was for an African renaissance with South Africa at its heart.
“And in his time after office he showed no less determination in stepping up the fight against Aids.”
‘Nelson Mandela can truly call himself the father of a nation, Labour leader Ed Miliband said today, as he joined Commons tributes to the former President of South Africa by reminding MPs his message can still inspire change.
Mr Miliband reflected that Mr Mandela himself said he was no saint, but a sinner who kept on trying, and said he left a fight against injustice which must continue in Britain and around the world.
And he said: “It is in the spirit of what Nelson Mandela taught us to acknowledge the truth about the past, and without rancour to welcome the change that has come to pass.
“But also to honour his legacy, by acknowledging in every country, including our own, the battle against racial injustice still needs to be won.
“So we come here to honour the man, to acknowledge our history and also for one final reason: to recognise and uphold the universal value for which Nelson Mandela stood, the dignity of every person whatever their colour or creed, values of tolerance and respect for all, and justice for all people wherever they may live and whatever oppression they may face.
“His extraordinary life calls on us all to keep on trying, for nobler ideals, for higher purposes, and for a bigger and not a smaller politics, inspired by his example and the movement he lead.
“We mourn his loss, we give thanks for his life and we honour his legacy.”
Mr Mandela’s spirit “never bent or broke” in the face of oppression, Mr Miliband said.
And he told the Commons: “We honour him too because of the remarkable person the world found him to be after he walked out of prison in 1990 in those scenes we all remember.
“There can be nothing more noble than determining not to seek revenge on your oppressors but to seek reconciliation with them. He truly was, as Archbishop Tutu said, an icon of magnanimity.
“That is why he became not just the leader of a struggle but truly can be described as the father of a nation.”
The story of injustice was one which never ended, Mr Miliband said, adding: “Having been an activist who became a president, he was a president who became an activist once again.”
Mr Miliband won laughs from MPs by relating two anecdotes about Mr Mandela appearing at Labour conference.
He said: “He came to the conference and described himself as an unemployed pensioner, with a criminal record.
“He famously said to Desmond Tutu who teased him for his taste in gaudy shirts, ‘it’s pretty thick for a man who wears a dress in public’.”
And reflecting on changing attitudes in Britain towards Mr Mandela, the Labour leader paid tribute to the Prime Minister for remarks acknowledging mistakes made in the past.
“It may seem odd to a younger generation that apartheid survived as long as it did, since it now seems to have been universally reviled all the world over,” he said.
But of course, the truth and the history is very different - the cause was highly unfashionable, often considered dangerous by those in authority and opposed by those in government.
“The Prime Minister was right a few years ago to acknowledge the history. It is in the spirit of what Nelson Mandela taught us to acknowledge the truth about the past, and without rancour to welcome the change that has come to pass.”
And reflecting on the wider struggle against apartheid, Mr Miliband said: “We gather here in our Parliament, in Britain, also to recognise that the history of our country was bound up with his struggle. In a spirit of truth and reconciliation, South Africa was after all once a British colony.
“But later, Britain would become in Nelson Mandela’s own words the ‘second headquarters in exile’.
“The Prime Minister and I went to sign a condolence book at South Africa House on Friday. It’s easy to forget now that South Africa House was not always such a welcoming place for the opponents of apartheid.
“So we should also remember today the hundreds of thousands of people who were the anti-apartheid movement in Britain, the people who stood month after month, year after year, on the steps of that embassy when the cause seemed utterly futile - the churches, the trade unions, the campaigners who marched, who supported the struggle culturally, financially and in so many other ways.
“People whose names we do not know from all over Britain who are part of that struggle. As well as those who will be etched in history, including the leaders of the movement who found sanctuary in Britain.
“And if the House will allow me, those in my own party who played such an important role - like Bob Hughes now in the House of Lords, and Peter Hain, and so many, many more.”
Gordon Brown: Injustice a lesson
Former prime minister Gordon Brown made a rare appearance in the Commons today to pay tribute to Nelson Mandela, who taught the world that “no injustice can last forever”.
Mr Brown, who was the first MP to speak after the three main party leaders, paid homage to the man he described as being as great “as the continent he loved”.
Recalling that he unveiled a statue of Mr Mandela before the former ANC president, who was accompanied by his wife, Mr Brown described the monument with its hands outstretched, “but his finger pointing upwards, as it always did, to the heights: the man most responsible for the destruction of what people thought was indestructible, the apartheid system.
“The man that taught us no injustice can last forever.”
Mr Brown, who was last in the Commons on July 9, said: “The most amazing story that he told me was on the night before they left prison, collaring all the ANC prisoners together, and saying, yes, they would be justified in acts of revenge, retaliation and retribution, but there could never then be a strong, successful and multiracial society.
“And that was his second great achievement, to achieve change through reconciliation. But you know there was a third achievement, refusing to rest or relax when he gave up the presidency.”
He praised Mr Mandela’s wife, Graca Machel, for sharing her husband’s ideals and fighting against child poverty, and said she would “now carry on his legacy into the future”.
Mr Brown, who is also the United Nations special envoy for global education, spoke of his visit to South Africa which coincided with the death of Mr Mandela’s son of Aids.
He said: “And while in mourning and in grief and shocked by the events, he insisted on coming out to the waiting press with me.
“And he said that Aids was not to be treated as a moral judgment and censoriously.
“It was to be treated exactly like the tuberculosis that he had suffered as a disease in need of cure. His greatness as vast as the continent he loved. Showing there that his greatness was the greatness of the human soul.”
‘Mandela’s extraordinary warmth’
The Conservative Party was on the wrong side of the struggle against Apartheid, former Tory Foreign Office minister Henry Bellinghamhas said.
Mr Bellingham, one of the longest serving Tory MPs, recalled a group of Conservatives feeling apprehensive on a 1994 visit to South Africa to meet then president Nelson Mandela due to Margaret Thatcher’s refusal to impose sanctions on the country’s racist government during the 1980s.
Mr Bellingham, who was Africa Minister until last year, admitted Mr Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC) party could not have seen the Tories as allies but praised the anti-Apartheid hero for going out of his way to make the Conservatives on the cross-party visit feel welcome.
He said Mr Mandela still thanked former prime ministers Thatcher and Sir John Major for what they did for South Africa.
The Tory Party has faced criticism in recent days for its former stance on Apartheid. Mrs Thatcher refused to impose economic blocks on the racist South African government despite intense diplomatic pressure and branded Mr Mandela’s ANC ‘’terrorists’’.
Less than a year after becoming Conservative leader, David Cameron publicly denounced the approach his party had taken in the 1980s.
Mr Bellingham told the Commons the Tories “weren’t exactly on the right side of the struggle against Apartheid”.
He said: “I’ll never forget the first time that I met Nelson Mandela. The leader of the Opposition has spoken of his extraordinary warmth and I certainly can witness this when I first met him.
“I was lucky enough to visit South Africa on what I think was the first APPG (all party parliamentary group) visit after the ‘94 elections, led by Labour MP Graham Allen (Nottingham North).
“And I know the Conservatives on the delegation, we did feel a degree of apprehension I think before the meeting in Shell House in Jo’burg. We felt a degree of unease and certainly we could hardly have been seen by the ANC as being great historic allies of them and we weren’t exactly on the right side of their struggle against Apartheid.
“But I’ll never forget three things from that first meeting with President Mandela as he was then. First of all, the really quite extraordinary warmth and also he seemed to understand intuitively that the Conservatives on the delegation did feel somewhat uneasy.
“And he went out of his way to put us at ease and when we went round the table introducing ourselves, the Conservatives, he said ‘well I’m really grateful to Margaret Thatcher for what she did and I’m very grateful to your current prime minister Mr (John) Major for all he’s done for our country’.
“It was as though he wanted to go out of his way to put our minds completely at ease.”