Nelson Mandela and the Stench of Hypocrisy

09/12/2013 15:08 GMT | Updated 06/02/2014 10:59 GMT

Politicians and journalists are falling over themselves to pay tribute to Nelson Mandela. Alas, the curse of having a good memory means recalling when the same politicians and journalists condemned the ANC leader as a terrorist.

I went on my first anti-apartheid demonstration in 1976, the truly dismal days of the South African regime. Their security forces had opened fire on black children whose crime was to ask for the right to learn English at school. Yet, Barclays Bank gave the regime stalwart support at a time when a growing number of countries were imposing sanctions on South Africa.

At other similar demonstrations that followed a surprising number of members of the public would denounce us for our irresponsibility. "Have you been to South Africa?" they would demand. "How can you possibly know what's happening there?" Yet they never asked the same questions of those who rightly condemned the Soviet Union without having visited.

At the time, we thought of those angry passersby as typical readers of The Mail and The Telegraph, papers whose editorial line reinforced their intolerant and prejudiced opinions. How odd then that today those same papers pay tribute to Mandela as a towering moral leader.

Just before the 2010 election David Cameron famously apologised for the Conservative Party's support for the apartheid system. For Mrs Thatcher the African National Congress which Mandela headed was "a typical terrorist organisation." Her close colleagues Teddy Taylor MP said, "Nelson Mandela should be shot."(1)

By disowning this legacy, Cameron believed he was detoxifying the Tory brand. Yet, surely we are entitled to question his sincerity as he praises Mandela today. In James Hanning's biography of Cameron, he describes the young politician's visit to apartheid era South Africa, while Mandela was still in jail in 1989 (2) .

Not that the current wave of opportunist hagiography is exclusive to the right. Tony Blair has been sharing his thoughts on Mandela with any open microphone he can find. Did he go on the ant-apartheid demonstrations that happened when it really mattered, when he was young? Or was he busy with his pop group?

Does any of this matter now? It should do, because it tells us about the moral compass and judgment of our leaders and opinion makers. It should also make us wonder what great ethical issues they are getting wrong now, just as they got it wrong on apartheid.

Take the case of David Hoile, a vice chairman of the Federation of Conservative Students during the 1980s. Hoile demanded The Guardian retract their charge that he had worn a "Hang Nelson Mandela" t shirt in his youth. Yet, a photo of Hoile subsequently emerged showing him with a "Hang Nelson Mandela" badge or sticker on his tie. Hoile is now director of the European Sudanese Public Affairs Council which supports a regime whose leaders have been indicted for genocide in Darfur (3). Ten out of ten for consistency.

One of the many important qualities we should remember about Mandela and his supporters in South Africa and beyond was their willingness to question the status quo when the majority turned a blind eye to massive human rights violations. As our current politicians and media pontificators avert their gazes from the persecution of minorities, incipient genocide and ethnic cleansing around the globe, we should be asking where they stood on Mandela and apartheid, if they were around at the time; and where we suspect they might have stood, had they been there. It isn't a very comforting thought.

1. Nelson Mandela: From 'terrorist' to tea with the Queen, The Independent, July 9, 1996

2. Cameron's freebie to apartheid South Africa The Independent, April 26, 2009

3. Our Man in Westminster: Former anti-Mandela camp is silent - in case its members hang themselves - UK Politics - UK The Independent June 24, 2013