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.
Laura Wilkinson said:
Fantastic post. I too ‘grew up’ with Mandela – my student uni bar was the called the Winnie Mandela bar – and with a radical mother I attended very many free NM gigs and rallies. Despite his age I felt so sad when I heard the news of his passing. The world lost a great man yesterday. On a more positive note his legacy of fighting for what you know to be right and forgiveness is a vital one. RIP Nelson Mandela.
Robin Dwyer-Hickey said:
Fab post – it’s refreshing to hear your personal perspective.
I’m kind of disturbed by the quote the media and every genius on Facebook have been bandying around: “When a man has done what he considers to be his duty to his people and his country, he can rest in peace. I believe I have made that effort and that is, therefore, why I will sleep for the eternity”. it reminds me of the quote they put on the MLK Jr monument here in DC: “I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.” (The quote has now been removed, thank Jeebus.)
The parallel here is that they both misrepresent the peeps they’re meant to honour – they make them sound like arrogant jerks. (And I guess the other parallel is that they were both brave black men who fought for freedom who were summarized with out of context, mis-representative quotes.)
Eh, I’m not sure I have a point here, but I wish folks would do more than a copy and paste job when remembering this great man. My knowledge of Mandela doesn’t extend much further than the newspapers, so I’ve remained sheepishly silent.
What I’m trying to say, with excruciating clumsiness, is that amidst the hailstorm of mindless eulogizing it was refreshing to read this thoughtful and insightful article.
Peter Dwyer-Hickey said:
Yes,I was in South Africa when Nelson was on trial. Although I am now old and bent with time and care,My name still brings a shudder to the Tories. I remember the shock of the whites when,in his trial speech,he challenged the judge to pass the death sentence.The last line of his speech being…”it is the cause for which I am prepared to die”.when I went to South Africa I was non political.When I left I knew where I stood.
I much appreciate my daughter’s tribute,and perhaps my son could send a translation of his comment.
As i like my Tories to be nasty,I am thankful for the honesty (but not the opinion) of the Chingford rottweiller