The University of Hong Kong's proudest association is with Dr Sun Yat Sen, who studied medicine at the college from which this University was to evolve, late in the nineteenth century, at the beginning of a career which would take him after many tribulations, to the Presidency of the new Republic, and recognition as the father of modern China. Now at the beginning of the twenty-first century, we honour a man who is no less a statesman and a symbol. Dr Sun stood for national self-determination and dignity. Nelson Mandela, in the long and bitter years of his struggle, stood for justice and equality. After his triumph, he stood no less uncompromisingly for truth and reconciliation.
Born into the royal family of the Tembu, Nelson Mandela spent the first twenty-three years of his life in the Transkei in the Eastern Cape. In 1964, shortly before he was sentenced to life imprisonment, Nelson Mandela reflected on his early life and the origins of his commitment to the struggle against apartheid. He said:
"My political interest was first aroused when I listened to elders of our tribe in my village as a youth. They spoke of the good old days before the arrival of the White man...Then the country was ours...The elders would tell us about the liberation and how it was fought by our ancestors in defence of our country, as well as the acts of valour performed by generals and soldiers during those epic days. I hoped, and vowed then, that amongst the pleasures that life might offer me, would be the opportunity to serve my people and make my own humble contribution to their struggle for freedom".
"Epic" and "pleasure", Mr Pro-Chancellor, are not words that have a natural affinity. In epic, it is trial and tribulation, hardship and suffering - rather than pleasure - which attend the hero, and test his valour to the utmost. The world knows well how, in his quest for freedom and justice, Nelson Mandela experienced to the full the repression and violence of the apartheid regime in the old South Africa. That he could look on that experience with such remarkable equanimity of spirit is a testimony to his true heroism.
After leaving his home in the Transkei, Nelson Mandela went to Johannesburg where he completed his Bachelor of Arts and commenced study for his LLB. In 1942, at the age of twenty-four, his political life began in earnest when he joined the African National Congress. As a core member of the ANC, Mandela with his colleagues set about transforming the organisation into a mass movement that would join in solidarity urban workers, rural peasants, and the professional class. In 1949, as a leader of the Youth League of the ANC, Mandela championed the Programme of Action which advocated civil disobedience and non-co-operation, and this became the official policy of the ANC at the time. This was succeeded by the Campaign for the Defiance of Unjust Laws in 1952, also led by Mandela who in the same year became deputy president of the ANC. In the Campaign, he travelled throughout South Africa organising resistance to discriminatory legislation. He was arrested, charged, and convicted of contravening the Suppression of Communism Act and given a suspended sentence. From this time on, Nelson Mandela became a marked man of the apartheid regime, and all through the decade of the 1950s, he would be subject to constant harrassment and acts of state repression.
After qualifying as a solicitor in 1952, Nelson Mandela opened a practice in Johannesburg with the late Oliver Tambo. In their fight against the brutal apartheid laws, they represented thousands of peasants who were dispossessed and ejected from lands they had cultivated for generations. In remembering their legal work during this period, Oliver Tambo was to write: "We had risen to professional status in our community, but every case in court, every visit to the prisons to interview clients, reminded us of the humiliation and suffering burning into our people". Time and again, the apartheid regime would exercise the tyrannical legal powers at its command to frustrate Mandela and Tambo's legal practice. In his unwavering commitment to the resistance, Nelson Mandela fought the regime on a number of legal fronts: against the exploitation of labour, the infamous pass laws, and the closing of the universities to black students.
On his return from a lecture visit abroad in 1962, Nelson Mandela was arrested and charged with illegal exit from the country, and incitement to strike. Thus began the cycles of trial, conviction, and imprisonment which were to culminate in his life imprisonment sentence of 1964. Throughout the trials, Mandela conducted his own defence. His "Statement from the dock at the Rivonia Trial" ends with these famous words:
"I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die".
Mr Pro-Chancellor, who can speak of what it might have been like for Nelson Mandela during those decades in prison? How can we possibly imagine the shades of thought and feeling that might have passed through him, or begin to fathom that commitment to an ideal for which he was willing, as he had declared, to sacrifice his life? Let me quote some lines by another political detainee, the Nigerian writer and Nobel Laureate for Literature, Wole Soyinka, imagining that imprisonment, in his famous poem "Mandela's Earth":
"Your patience grows inhuman, Mandela.
Do you grow food?
Do you make friends, of mice and lizards? Measure the growth of grass, for time's unhurried pace?
Are you now the crossword puzzle expert? Chess?
Ah, no! Subversion lurks among Chess pieces. Structured clash of black and white, Equal ranged and paced?
An equal board?
No! Not on Robben Island.
Checkers? Bad to worse.
That game has no respect for class or king-serf Ordered universe...
Your logic frightens me, Mandela, your logic humbles me..."
In pursuit of that logic, Nelson Mandela, after his release from prison in 1990, worked tirelessly on a mission of reconciliation between black and white in order to build a new society in South Africa from the ashes of its past. Elected President of the republic, he became, as Dr Sun Yat Sen became, the father of his nation, the new South Africa. A recepient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993, Nelson Mandela, after he stepped down from the Presidency of South Africa, has continued to fight the good war - more recently, against the AIDS epidemic in his own country and Africa. Nelson Mandela is a symbol of hope to the wretched of the earth, and revered all over the world as a shining example of what the best of humanity can achieve against the forces of darkness and degradation. Mr Pro-Chancellor, this University is honoured that he has agreed to accept our award, and it is my privilege and pleasure to present to you Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela for the award of the degree of Doctor of Laws honoris causa.
Soyinka, Wole. Mandela's Earth and Other Poems. (New York: Random House, 1988), p.4
Citation written and delivered by Dr Elaine Ho Yee Lin, the Public Orator.