By Paul Martin.
Monika Pajerová was one of those brave students you simply do not forget.
As the Velvet Revolution was unfolding in 1989 to the amazement of the Czech people and of the world, this young woman spoke eloquently for the students’ strike committee that was instrumental in toppling decades of Communist rule over Czechoslovakia.
Now, thirty years later, I have been talking to her again, by phone. She was just getting out of a car, with her 15-year-old son. She remembers me “so well”, she says.
I ask her for an interview, and I offer to bring some video we made of her and her students inside the theatre. And a copy of the film we made later and broadcast on the BBC, Wiping the Slate Clean.
“Why don’t you come and chat in a nice warm flat. 2pm on Saturday.”
That would mean she would be taking a break from a day of demonstrations planned to make a new political demand: the resignation of the current prime minister and his cronies. “We’re expecting a million protesters,” she says.
Pajerová, who married an Irish academic, continues to live and work in Prague.
After the successful revolution she finished her studies, obtaining a doctorate in literature, then lectured at the famous Charles University before taking up work to support the Czech Republic’s entry into the European Union.
She has just written a book called The Velvet Revolution – 30 Years On, published by Chicago University Press – and she’s been giving speeches, including on the 17th, exactly thirty years to the day since the strike she organised sparked the overthrow of Communism.
She tells me the stress of all this has taken its toll – she feels her aching ankle is a casualty of it.
As for her reminiscences, she offers that I can start off by simply using any quotes from her book. “I trust you,” she says.
Hang on, I think, I’m a journalist. She trusts journalists? Clearly after 30 years those trademark glasses of hers still view the world with a rosy tint.
June 5 1990 8.30 pm BBC-2: To coincide with BBC2’s season of programmes about Czechoslovakia, Paul Martin reports on the effects of the revolution on the education system. It was the students who organised the strikes and demonstrations which swept the Communists from power.
Now the same students have returned to their classes, eager to bring about a revolution in education. Overthrowing the regime took only a few days; the process of re-education will take longer.
By Paul Martin.
Our film crew charged up a dimly-lit flight of stairs leading in a Prague apartment block near the Danube River, and knocked on Vaclav Havel’s front door. A lady in a dressing-gown opened it. “Is Mr Havel at home?” we asked. “Sorry”, said Olga Havel. “My husband’s gone off to the Palace already.”
The Israeli explanation of its attack on Gaza City’s al-Jalaa building, for which it gave half an hour’s notice to the occupants, came far too late to repair the damage it caused to Israel’s image.
The attack took place on June 15 2021 but the Israeli explanation was only publuished on June 9 2021.
It does provide a reasonable ‘excuse’ for the extreme damage, but does not explain why a more precise weapon could not have been used to attack the specific parts of the building where the military activity was allegedly taking place.
Though there was no loss of life, and a warning was given in time to clear the building, it seems, figuratively, to be over-kill.
If it is true that Hamas operatives were occupyiong three stories of thsi 12-story building, it could be argued that by rocketing three stories the whole edifice could have toppled. That could have spread debris in a much wider arc than if the whole building had been stuck by precise air weaponry.
It is hard for us non-military journalists to assess these respective damage probabilities.
When I was reporting from Gaza during the Intifada (2001-2007) I also used an office of a very reliable and decent media company, Nepras, in a building that we all knew housed a facility belonging to a hardline Gaza militant group, Islamic Jihad. I even once went in to their office space once to ask for an interview.
I would certainly have felt outraged if the Israelis had destroyed the entire building on the basis that Islamic Jihad was fighting against Israel. It would have meant all those operating legitimate offices and activities from the building would lose their previous possessions.
I suppose we could have removed the video hard-drives and tapes and some of the lighter equipment in the half-hour warning period, but that would hardly compensate for the total loss of the material we owned.
Anyway, here is what the AP reported:
REPORT BY Associated Press
The Israel Defense Force says Hamas was operating within a Gaza media tower housing the offices of international media outlets, including The Associated Press, to develop a system to disrupt the Iron Dome missile defense system.
The army’s statement comes shortly after Israel’s UN ambassador made similar comments explaining the IDF’s widely condemned May 15 strike leveling the tower during last month’s 11-day conflict.The building housing the offices of The Associated Press and other media in Gaza City collapses after it was hit by an Israeli airstrike, May 15, 2021. (Hatem Moussa/AP)
“During Operation ‘Guardians of the Walls’ the IDF struck the al-Jalaa building on May 15th, 2021. The site was used by the Hamas terror organization for intelligence R&D and to carry out SIGINT (signals intelligence), ELINT (electronic signals intelligence), and EW (electronic warfare) operations, targeting both IDF operational activity and civilian systems in Israel,” the army says.
“One of the main goals of these efforts was to develop a system that would disrupt the Iron Dome aerial defense system,” it says.
“The purpose of the IDF strike was to curtail these enemy capabilities, including destroying special equipment, and preventing their use during the operation. According to IDF assessments, the equipment was in the building at the time of the strike. The strike was designed to collapse the building in order to ensure the destruction of the special means.
“The target was of high military value to Hamas and was vetted according to rigorous procedures within the IDF, and in accordance with international law,” adds the military.
The report did not, however, elicit reaction from the many sources who claimed the attack was made in order to silence or inhibit foreign reporting of the conflict.
How Nelson Mandela looked to bring unity through sport
By Paul Martin.
Just days after his release in 1990, Nelson Mandela checked in for a South African Airways flight from Cape Town to Johannesburg. When I spotted him I decided to upgrade myself – so I could try to get close. The plan was working: on board I was delighted to see that he and I were the only passengers in Business Class.
Half an hour into the two-hour flight I plucked up the courage, or the cheek, to walk over to him. “Good morning, Mr. Mandela,” I said, “I’m the journalist who wore that ‘Free Mandela’ T-shirt at your first press conference. My white South African colleagues hated that!”
He may well have felt unfairly ambushed – but he was surprisingly courteous and polite. “Sit down next to me,” he said, and warmly shook my hand. “And just call me Madiba [his clan name].”
For the rest of the flight ‘Madiba’ and I discussed only one subject. Not his 27 years in jail, or his future tactics for negotiating with the still-recalcitrant white-dominated government. We talked about sport.
When I pulled out a photograph from my briefcase – of Mandela as a young boxer in the 1950s – his eyes lit up. “Oh yes,” he enthused. “I remember that day very well. I did not win!”
He had loved boxing, he said, because it relieved the strains of work as a young black lawyer operating in a profession that, in the 1950s, was almost entirely whites-only. Young Nelson saw boxing at a local Soweto club as a template for the world he dreamed of creating for all South Africans: a society where everyone was equal and treated on his or her merits.
“Boxing is egalitarian,” Mandela told me, eyes transfixed by the picture. “When you’re probing your opponent’s strengths and weaknesses, you’re not thinking about his colour or his social status. In the ring, rank, age, colour and wealth are irrelevant.”
A very similar quote now appears on a plaque alongside a huge multi-dimensional statue, unveiled this year, of the great man – his clenched fists raised inside boxing gloves. Modelled on the same photograph, it towers in the street alongside the Johannesburg magistrates’ court, where in the ‘bad old days’ the apartheid law enforcers would jail blacks for breaching ‘pass-laws’ that made them ‘temporary sojourners’ in their own land.
In 1990 Mandela also considered boxing strategy to be the ideal training for what was to come: four tough years of tortuous negotiation with the country’s white rulers. “It teaches you when and how to attack and to defend,” he said. “And how to pace yourself over what could be a long contest.”
Since that flight from Cape Town in 1990, Mandela from time to time would enlighten me about his sporting strategy: to use sport as a political tool, first to make white South Africans feel more willing to relinquish their monopoly of power, and then to build multi-racial national bonds instead of bitterness and resentment.
During his last weeks in prison Mandela had authorised his African National Congress (ANC) to launch the mass demonstrations and disruption that cut short Mike Gatting’s England rebel cricket tour. But by then he had already secretly approved clandestine contacts with the “racist” cricket authorities – aimed at forming multi-racial teams and rejecting government sports policies.
In the 1970s I had been a young white cricket umpire who had incurred the wrath of the white cricket establishment by ‘defecting’ to the anti-apartheid non-white cricket leagues. In an era of segregation, even sharing a dressing-room or an after-match beer was illegal. Liaising secretly with the long- banned ANC I was involved, even then, in a form of subversion: trying to bring whites and non-whites together in one cricket body, so undermining the very basis of ‘separate development’.
Over a decade later, talks held in my London home and elsewhere were moving towards a potential deal, tacitly backed by Mandela from his jail-cell. Hardline politicians and sports administrators on both extremes tried to block us.
But everything was superseded (on February 2 1990) by President FW de Klerk’s dramatic announcement that the white government was unbanning the ANC and was about to free Mandela after 27 years’ imprisonment.
The first major lifting of the blanket ban on international sporting contacts came when, late in 1991, Mandela supported sending the national cricket side, under Clive Rice, on a short visit to India. That was followed months later by an even more historic tour of the West Indies. Till then, neither India nor the West Indies had ever played cricket against South Africa.
Another, much more important breakthrough for South African sport would be its readmission to the Olympic movement. Would Mandela support the idea that, even while there was no overall political settlement in racially-divided South Africa, the still-white-ruled country could send a multi-racial team to the 1992 Olympic Games?
The idea of South Africa’s flag – which had symbolised white control over the country- fluttering alongside those of its former enemies at the world’s premier sporting event had been anathema to most in the anti-apartheid movement worldwide. And indeed Mandela faced strong internal dissatisfaction within his party over his bold policy of reconciliation or, as he called it, “nation- building”, through sport. (That type of dissent carried on even after white rule was removed – as the film Invictus accurately portrays.)
Nevertheless, in 1991 Mandela and a handful of his party’s leadership met a top-level delegation from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) inside the terminal of a tiny airstrip in the picturesque Eastern Transvaal. (It was chosen because it was so remote and also because Mandela was enjoying a few days’ rest on a private game-ranch nearby.)
I was privileged to be there and to film this otherwise secret meeting for later broadcast on BBC “Sportsnight”.
When a famous black athlete and IOC delegate, the still-running and still-undefeated American hurdler Ed Moses, tearfully embraced Mandela just before the ANC leader boarded the game-ranch’s helicopter, I realised a deal was close. A multi-racial South African team could be heading to Barcelona the next year.
Even so, it was touch and go. Or not go. As political tensions in South Africa mounted in 1992, Mandela threatened to block the team’s departure unless faster integration of previously segregated sports bodies took place, and the white regime’s secret police stopped provoking political violence.
He got his way. Mandela was feted at the 1992 Olympics as guest of honour, while President FW de Klerk was pointedly absent from the guest list.
As the historic 1994 elections approached, a white extreme-right-wing bombing campaign left more than two dozen dead. But, the hardline right was by now isolated and emasculated – partly at least because the fears of most whites had been assuaged; they had been won over by the magnanimity of Mandela in general and by his sports policies in particular. Almost miraculously, the violence petered out as election day approached.
When Mandela was inaugurated in 1994 as the country’s first black president, I was in the VIP area- through a security lapse rather than by invitation. As he walked past, Madiba recognised me, smiled broadly, and said: “Hello Paul. Here I am. We’re boxing clever. And we’re winning – so far!”
Incidentally, even as president his interest in boxing showed no sign of waning: Mike Tyson gave him signed boxing gloves, which he promptly handed over to his daughter Zindzi – yes, she boxes too.
Madiba’s unity-through-sport strategy came to full fruition in 1995. Rugby had been reviled by anti- apartheid activists for decades as the white man’s game, the epitome of racial exclusion. And more than a year into Mandela’s official rule, only a small proportion of the top players were black.
When South Africa hosted the World Cup, though, Mandela (against the wishes of many of the ANC leadership) chose to do the unthinkable – he donned a green-and-gold Springbok jersey, went onto the field and danced and hugged the no-longer-racist Springbok Captain Francois Pienaar. They jointly lifted the trophy.
A couple of days later, amid national euphoria, Mandela and I filmed an interview in the sun-drenched garden of his Johannesburg home, in a once whites-only upmarket suburb. “Three years ago,” he told me, “if South Africa had played the New Zealanders at rugby, I would have been cheering for the All Blacks.”
Afterwards, as we packed away our cameras, Mandela lingered, put on his dark glasses, and threw me an imaginary rugby ball. “There you are, Paul. You see. Nation-building. It worked!”
Yes, Madiba, it did.