Tributes to Nelson Mandela mingled with recollections of Eva Ricard (mother of our host Angeline Greensill) - the late great matriarch of Whaingaroa - and her succesful struggle to have land returned to the iwi, mingled with the latest outrage at, and struggle against the seabed mining and deep sea drilling being forced on the peoples of the Raglan coast.

A familiar green, black and yellow ANC banner with the smiling face of Mandela repeated three times hung as the backdrop to dozens of speakers who each gave heartfelt and eloquent korero at the “have your say” gathering this Sunday past at the Whaingaroa land.

The relationship between Mandela, the loved freedom leader who symbolised the end of apartheid in South Africa, and deep sea drilling seemed fluid.  New Zealand’s part in that struggle against apartheid was linked to a time when we took a stand on an issue of values and, as divided as our own country was, we sheeted our identity to that struggle.  We came through as a people who could not countenance sporting ties with a country whose government enforced structural racism.

Just as New Zealand’s stance against French nuclear testing in the Pacific had been an identity defining moment, so too was the 1981 tour and what Prime Minister Norm Kirk had portentially suggested would be the “largest civil uprising in New Zealand history”.

The fight against nuclear and apartheid was yesterday seen at Whaiangaroa as part of a lineage that now includes ocean bed mining and deep sea oil drilling.  And rightly so. These issues are all about knowing where we stand and standing on principle.

A cynical New Zealand Herald advertisement depicted the springbok tour with the text - “in 1981 everyone knew what side they were on”.  Everyone that is, except John Key.

The nature of social change and transitional leadership means it requires people to take sides. Ambivalence is another word for maintenance of the status quo.  In a society founded on oppression, to be ambivalent was to stay silent in the face of oppression, to condone it by one's inaction.  Mandela was a man who took sides - not white against black but the oppressed against the oppressor.  

The words by which Key paid tribute to Mandela portrayed a leader that is the polar opposite of the leader that Key himself is.

Key said Mandela was an “incredibly inspirational leader”  and a “beacon of hope” for his people and “someone that leaders around the world have looked to”.  One is struck by the thought that no one will ever say that about John Key.

We are capable of producing inspirational and visionary leaders in this country and in a world addicted to oil and faced with the cataclysm of climate change we need exactly that.

Now is not an era in human history when to be ambivalent or, in the case of Key’s government, willfully pro-oil, is tolerable. 

But is would be Prime Minister David Cunliffe capable of expressing any of the brave, visionary, inspirational leadership of the great Mandela either?  Or is he likely to be just a slightly different shade of ambivalent.