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Nelson Mandela at 43, in June 1962. Photographed  by Michael Peto

Nelson Mandela at 43, in June 1962. Photographed by Michael Peto

My tribute to Nelson Mandela, whose death was announced yesterday. 

Life After Mandela

On the day I was born, Nelson Mandela had already been imprisoned for a decade. My father was in Capetown, serving in the Royal Navy, during Mandela’s trial. He remembers Mandela’s defiance and often told me that despite the many evils of apartheid, South Africa was the most beautiful country he ever visited.

I grew up in the suburbs, on the fringes of multi-racial London. I loved black culture, especially music – we all did. Nonetheless, there was always an undercurrent of tension. Some friends had racist attitudes: they were appalled when a classmate ‘degraded’ herself by having an Asian boyfriend. (Two years before, the same girl had attended my birthday party, and made monkey gestures at my black neighbours. I guess she must have changed for the better, while others didn’t.)

If Margaret Thatcher defined everything I would rebel against, Nelson Mandela was a shining beacon. Sometime in the late eighties, I went to a benefit in Hyde Park and danced to Simple Minds. There were other rallies too, and I wore my Free Nelson Mandela badge with pride.

I also remember fuming inwardly at a family gathering, when an elderly, distant uncle praised South Africa, where his children had prospered under apartheid. He bitterly denigrated ‘the blacks’ whose paths occasionally crossed theirs.

When I started studying for A Levels at the local technical college, many of my friends were black. I still laugh when I recall attending a musical about black heroes with a friend – I was the only white person there! That night, I learned what it’s like to really stand out.

I miss that time of my life when everyone mixed together – as I got older, and moved away from large cities, my circle became less diverse in some ways.

But I think the impact of my childhood has stayed with me. All my life, I’ve hated racism, or prejudice of any kind. Even today, Britain’s shabby treatment of gypsies and travellers infuriates me (and don’t get me started on the current government’s persecution of the sick and disabled.) Of all the causes I’ve believed in, Mandela’s came first – and was the one I felt most passionate about. In a way, he was my teacher.

In 1989, the world began to change. When a fatwah was declared against Salman Rushdie, the lingering discontent in my town began to ignite. Later that year, parts of the Eastern Bloc were liberated from Soviet rule. And in 1990, after 27 years, the impossible happened – Mandela was released from Robben Island.

Within four years, Mandela was South Africa’s president, and apartheid was dismantled. Since then, he has become a beloved, symbolic figure and the politicians who once labelled him a terrorist now basked in his reflected glory. I was sad that his long-lasting marriage did not survive after his release, and that South Africa’s problems never truly disappeared.

While at university, I would often hang out at the Nelson Mandela Coffee Bar. This always amused me, as it showed how ubiquitous he had become. But he could still be radical when it counted, mingling with Brixton’s black community and demanding an inquiry into the racist murder of London teenager Stephen Lawrence.

I have never thought of Mandela as a terrorist, but as a freedom fighter who turned to warfare when peaceful methods failed. I can only hope that future generations won’t have to make that decision. In later years I sometimes felt that he conceded too much, and I have little patience with the revisionist view of him as everyone’s favourite old black guy.

However, his passing completes a year which also marked the death of Mrs Thatcher, and it gives me pleasure to realise that although she had her day in the sun, Mandela changed the world for good – and it’s still changing.

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