Westpac CEO Gail Kelly brought almost a thousand people to their feet yesterday evening after sharing her personal account of life under South African apartheid.
Kelly spoke at the unveiling of the University of New South Wales’ Nelson Mandela bust. Two of her children have attended the university.
Kelly was born in Pretoria in 1956 and had, by all accounts, a sheltered childhood, shielded from political turmoil by a state-controlled media.
She credited her “good, value-based family” and “excellent private school education” for encouraging her to question National Party propaganda.
“I particularly remember my English teacher, Mrs Lawrence, who was strongly liberal in her views and was passionate about teaching and encouraging us to question, see intolerance and bigotry for what it is,” she said.
“I recall, in senior school, being a speaker in a debate on the topic, ‘apartheid is an unjust system’ … such a debate would not have been possible in a government school.”
Kelly went on to study arts and later, education, at the University of Cape Town. As the head student of her college at 20 years old, she was charged with keeping the peace as student riots broke out across the country.
By the time Kelly joined the Nedcor Bank as a teller in 1980, she had witnessed black youths being chased out of a subway tunnel and felt the sting of tear gas first-hand.
In 1985, while studying towards an MBA, Kelly saw an image of Nelson Mandela for the first time.
“I was part of a group of students who gathered late one evening in a lecture hall similar to this one. We locked the doors and posted a sentry outside to watch for security police and we shared a video documenting the history of the ANC [African National Congress].
“This was the first time I saw what Nelson Mandela actually looked like and had any real understanding of the history of the anti-apartheid movement. Of course, it was a dangerous thing to do.”
Kelly’s curiosity landed her in a bit of trouble the following year. While in London for a banking conference in 1986, Kelly and her husband Allan bought books about Mandela, his wife Winnie and the ANC.
They were searched by officials at the Johannesburg airport and the books were discovered.
“The next two hours of investigation, questioning and intimidation were particularly unpleasant,” she recalled.
“When we were eventually allowed to leave with the rest of our luggage broken and in disarray, we felt violated and we knew that our names had been taken down.”
Kelly recalled watching Mandela’s release from prison on television in 1990, and South Africa’s first democratic election in 1994. Nelson Mandela was elected president and worked with deputy president and former National Party leader F. W. de Klerk to put an end to apartheid.
The Kellys left South Africa for Australia in 1997, when Gail Kelly was appointed General Manager of Strategic Marketing at the Commonwealth Bank.
Ninety-five year old Nelson Mandela has been in hospital since June 8. South African High Commissioner Koleka Mqulwana told the UNSW audience yesterday that his condition was improving.
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