Mário Soares died yesterday.
Dr. Soares (1924-2017) was one of the major democrats of the 20th Century. He was an indefatigable crusader for human rights throughout his life. He fought the fascist Salazar regime with courage and without surcease, which lead to his imprisonment and eventual exile. Despite continual setbacks, his political activism eventually culminated in the fall of the regime and the freedom of a nation. He became prime minister in Portugal’s transition to democracy, and was instrumental in the peaceful negotiations that lead to the decolonialisation of the Portuguese overseas territories.
Although a socialist and freethinker, he would supremely agree with Voltaire’s dictum of ‘I disagree with every word you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it.’ He rose to become the President of Portugal and sought dialogue with all world leaders, even those despised by the West, irrespective of censure. He was a great believer in the project of European unity, considering the alternative of continual wars over centuries, destructive and futile. He was active in various United Nations Human Rights missions and won the accolades of the world.
I first heard about Mário Soares as an adolescent after the 1974 Carnation Revolution, just as the colonies around South Africa were falling, much to the alarm of South Africa. The Portuguese community in the country were basically right-leaning and Soares was definitely not their champion. His encounter with Samora Machel, the leader of Frelimo, to negotiate the independence of Mozambique did not go down well in their eyes. He was considered a sell-out communist to them.
My callow mind took a different view. I read his writings including aspects of ‘Portugal’s Struggle for Liberty’ in conjunction with ‘Aqui Moçambique Livre’ which stirred my political awakening. It opened my eyes to the injustices of the world and was very influential in formulating my burgeoning liberal, democratic and left-leaning world view, which I wear as a badge when the going gets serious.
I was fortunate to meet Dr. Soares when he visited Cape Town in 1995. I made my way through a crowded Mt Nelson hotel ballroom to speak to the man after his speech. He was flanked by officials and interpreters and appeared slightly weary from what must have been a full day. I told him of his influence on me at a young age and thanked him for it. He chatted for a minute or so, then smiled and wished me luck.
When I look at people like that, I recognise a true leader. Leaders are rare people. I also recognise that I am not a leader in that mould, and am thankful for that recognition. It’s the same recognition as Rick had in the film Casablanca. Victor Laszlo, his rival in love, manages to fearlessly lead the café patrons to drown out the Nazi’s singing of “Die Wacht am Rhein” with “La Marseillaise” which was not without consequence. Rick, as main a man as he was around wartime Casablanca, then knew, despite emotions, that he had to get Laszlo out of Casablanca to do greater things for the war effort. Laszlo was the leader, Rick the mere leading-man.
Thank you once again and go well, Dr. Soares!