A personal reflection following the death of Nelson Mandela

Life’s rich tapestry, as the cliché goes, has many threads. It is sometimes good to pick up those threads and find meaning in them again, none more so than during this funeral period for Nelson Mandela. I have no photographs of me and the great man laughing together. The nearest I ever got  was joining the masses of cheering thousands in Trafalgar Square that sunny lunchtime during his first state visit to the UK in 1996. I reminded my younger son that he was with me then and was blessed, as we all were by the great man.

I cannot remember a time when I did not know about apartheid but I suppose it was in the late 60s when I first became aware and now, as I pick up that thread, so the influences and connections become clearer. Anyone interested and concerned about the American Civil Rights movements would have made a rapid connection to the fight against  apartheid in South Africa…. (As an aside it always struck me as incomprehensible that the Americans came so late to influencing the tide of the change in South Africa… )

Nelson Mandela became a real person for me in the early 70s when I had a group of friends which included a young man who had been banned and exiled from South Africa.  Those friends educated me in the injustice of apartheid and on a winter’s evening, in a chilly community hall in Brixton, I watched that grainy film Last Grave at Dimbaza. It was an awakening.

The backdrop to our lives was shaped by other great moral leaders of the time.  Trevor Huddleston has undeservedly fallen away from popular consciousness, but was a towering figure.  Both he and Peter Hain, later a minister in the Labour Government were a force in bringing about awareness of apartheid in the UK. After the Trafalgar Square event I fell into conversation with someone in Peter Hain’s parliamentary office. She complained that Hain had not been invited to any of the many Mandela receptions during the Conservative government hosted State visit.  Perhaps old grudges die hard?

Possibly the greatest influence personally for me was making friends with a black South African student during my  university days in the late 1970s.   At this point the daily life of a young person growing up in South Africa was laid shockingly before me.  Hearing about his experience and his thoughts for the future have inspired me and many others over the years. Against appalling odds he had emerged as well educated, perceptive, articulate and highly political: he saw it as his duty to inspire young South Africans in their struggle for justice: his brushes with the apartheid regime were many and serious. I once asked him how he could bare all this and his reply was: ‘I just keep talking’.

By the end of university I realised that I wanted to participate in the struggle for equality and justice and eventually worked my way into Aid and Development, which was the only practical avenue I could see.    The 1980s were bad days for the anti-apartheid struggle: the US was entirely disinterested and apparently inactive. As far as the UK government was concerned it was the same.  At a meeting during the early 80’s a foreign office official told us that quite frankly there was no political appetite to support the struggle and that until public opinion could be engaged, you could forget the UK government’s involvement. Harsh but realistic words in the days when Mrs. Thatcher called Nelson Mandela a ‘dangerous terrorist’. I could not imagine a time when the apartheid regime would ever lose its grip.

At that same meeting there was a white bearded man who carried with him a sense of terrible foreboding. Living in Angola, he was a refugee from the South African regime and perceived that death stalked him. He begged us to keep up the fight, he appealed to the Foreign Office official for action. He kept reading a letter from his wife and quoting it, putting it away and getting it out again. Too cosy in our secure world to really believe in his danger, we felt powerless to support him and sceptical about his plight. Sadly,  his wife and child were later killed by a South African state terrorist letter bomb. He lived and eventually returned to South Africa.

At this Aid and Development organisation one of my bosses was married to a banned and  exiled South African and our discussions and debates never waned.  During those years I was occasionally surprised to answer her phone to the likes of Donald Woods and other notables. His book about Steve Biko and Sir Richard Attenborough’s Cry Freedom was a game changer.

Our shared moment  of inspiration came in the late 80s when, after a weekend of extreme concern about the imminent hanging of a group of black South Africans.  The news arrived that the South African President had commuted their sentence. The US had awoken and at last had used its influence. That Monday morning I walked into the office and with a sense of amazement said to her: ‘My God, it’s going… Azania in our time…’ the first time that I had seen a chink of light and the first time I really believed apartheid would break apart in our lifetime.

Over the past week during these joyful obsequies for Nelson Mandela, the question has been asked: will anything change as result of his death and the world’s united focus on South Africa? The response from many commentators has been: not much.

But I wonder. A death of such a great man, who endured so much for so long, gives us all a chance to reflect upon our own long walk through life and to pick up that thread again and renew our moral energy. He has given us in death another chance to remind ourselves about who we are and could be and the work that still remains for us to do to achieve justice and equality.