Nelson Mandela, the man and the times

When I was growing up as a boy in the 1980’s there were three continual stories that kept coming on the news headlines.  They were all quite similar and the images were almost interchangeable.  Though the world was on edge with the Cold War and people were sad about Tibet and China and the Kurds in Iraq and Turkey, what could be guaranteed to be on the news night after night was one of the following.  Bombs, assassination and riots in Northern Ireland, Bombs, assassination and riots in Israel and the West Bank and assassination and riots in South Africa.   Happily two of the three of these unsolvable problems have now been resolved peacefully but at the time every one seemed impossible.

South Africa at the time was dominated by whites, white Afrikaans from areas of the Netherlands who spoke Dutch and despised blacks and white British who saw blacks as second class citizens.    It was the Dutch who arrived in South Africa first, the Afrikaan farmers were fiercely independent and belligerent and they had left Europe for a chance to start new lives in Africa.  When the British arrived shortly after and set about creating the beginnings of a modern and governed territory, the Afrikaans took umbrage at being told to behave themselves and for about a century went further into Africa stealing the lands of the native Africans and causing more than a little chaos which forced the British governors to move in to calm things down which then meant the Afrikaans moved further inland and the whole cycle would start again.

Nelson Mandela was born in 1918 to a family of Kings in the Thembu people of South Africa.  The world he was born into is almost unimaginable to most of us today.  South Africa was a colony but it still offered some opportunities to a black boy and he was the first in his family to go to school, learn English and then at the age of 19 attended Fort Hare University where he quickly became interested in politics.

Strong minded from the beginning he declined to enter into a forced marriage and instead went to Johannesburg where he worked as a guard at a mine. Living in the black Alexandra township where he would meet many other politically minded activists.

When South Africa became an independent nation, a referendum was held amongst the whites on whether to become a republic or not.  The Dutch descended Afrikaans or Boers despised any link to London almost as much as they looked down on blacks but their greater population resulted in a narrow victory and despite some English speaking areas of the country strongly disagreeing, the country left the Commonwealth and became a Republic.

Immediately, the already tough race rules that existed to segregate white and blacks were toughened and punishments for breaking these rules became tougher.  Instead of separation, there was now repression. Black South Africans were not allowed to travel without a pass, they couldn’t sit on park benches, visit beaches, travel on buses or have any sort of personal relationship with other races. Not all whites agreed with this but the majority of them did or did not speak up against it.

Nelson and baby

Nelson Mandela delighted at the birth of his first child.

Nelson Mandela and other activists formed the African National Congress or ANC and followed the approach of Gandhi and peaceful resistance but they were accused of treason and put on a 4 year trial before all 150 were acquitted.

Nelson Mandela began giving legal advice to blacks in townships as part of a general low level political uprising.  The police were sadistically tough with any blacks who dared speak up and things came to a head in Sharpeville in March 1961 when police killed 69 peaceful protesters.

Sharpeville Massacre 21st March 1960

The Sharpeville Massacre

Forming the armed wing of the ANC or Umkhonto we Sizwe – ‘Spear of the Nation’, Mandela began a series of resistance style disruption to state infrastructure and with the help of the CIA was again put on trial.  He spoke for 4 hours in an eloquent and calm manner that impressed even those who wanted him imprisoned and he closed his speech with the famous lines below:

During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to the struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination.

‘I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities.

‘It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.’

He and his fellow accused avoided the death penalty but were sent to prison where Mandela spent the next 27 years, much of it on Robben Island, a notoriously grim prison.
While he was in prison the blacks struggled on with a never ending round of protests, peaceful demonstrations and occasional riots which more often than not were met by indiscriminate police shootings.
London became a focus of the Anti-Apartheid movement partly due to our connections with Africa, partly due to the international nature of the place but mostly because the people here were so thoroughly disgusted.  In the 1980’s Mrs Thatcher refused to placed additional sanctions on the Apartheid government which caused civil unrest in the U.K.  However it was later revealed by the white South African President that it was only Mrs Thatcher amongst the international leaders who understood the complexities of the situation and it was only her strong opinions that were ever listened to by the regime.
Wembley Stadium Nelson Mandela

Free Nelson Mandela Concert at Wembley Stadium

It was becoming clear that the situation in South Africa could not continue for ever.  It was bound to change one way or the other either in a huge massacre of the blacks by the Afrikaans or a civil war uprising which would seen the whites massacred and the country largely destroyed.
Living in London at the time, it felt very much like the ANC and Nelson Mandela were one of us.  A huge concert was held at Wembley Stadium for the release of Nelson Mandela and Trafalgar Square was frequently filled by peaceful protesters and petitioners who would keep a vigil outside the South African embassy.   A song was released in 1984 called “Free Nelson Mandela” became a UK Top Ten hit and became an unofficial anthem of the ANC and symbol of solidarity around the world.
All peace processes need to have a partner, someone who is willing to make concessions and give up his apparently unreasonable beliefs.  President Gorbachev was such a man who managed to end Soviet Communism without a shot being fired.   In South Africa, G.W. de Klerk was such a man.  On his arrival in office he had many strongly debated meetings with Thatcher and others and he made the remarkable step of released Nelson Mandela without any pre-conditions.
Mandela and FW de Klerk

Mandela and FW de Klerk

President de Klerk must have realised he was actioning a political suicide note but one way or the other he knew the country he loved would be forever ruined if change did not take place.  On 11th February 1990, Nelson Mandela was released and following more years of desperate white oppression by the police and sections of the government, an open election was held and the man who for so long was labelled a terrorist became the President of South Africa and in doing so solidified his status as the most famous black man of all time.
What made Nelson Mandela extra special was that once apartheid fell the thought was towards reconciliation and not vengeance or hatred.  He stopped the country suffering a civil war and immediately went about doing his best to modernise the facilities for the black majority and starting integration between the different peoples of the country.  His thoughtful and kind demeanour gave him such a stature that he was enamoured by the vast majority of the white population in South Africa and when South Africa won the Rugby World Cup in Cape Town and Mandela presented the trophy wearing the rugby top of the white South African captain of the team it was a sense of unity throughout the country and indeed much of the world.
Defining Moment

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA – JUNE 24: Springbok captain Francois Pienaar (R) receives the Rugby World Cup from South african President Nelson Mandela at Ellis Park in Johannesburg 24 June 1995. South Africa won the final against New Zealand 15-12 after extra-time. (Photo credit should read PHILIP LITTLETON/AFP/Getty Images)

Nelson Mandela became the most respected and loved leader in the world.  He inspired the Northern Ireland peace protest and so ended the second intractable conflict and for a while even Israel and the Palestinians reached a peace deal until the sad events of the Israeli President Rabin being assassinated by a radical Israeli on the eve of the peace.
Nelson Mandela visited London several times and addressed large crowds which on one occasion I was lucky enough to watch and listen.  He became friends with The Queen, met Thatcher, Blair, Clinton and Bush and all of those leading protests and concerts for his freedom.
The Queen and President Mandela

The first visit by a British monarch to South Africa since 1947.

He would visit ever part of London and huge ecstatic crowds would chant and cheer him and shout that they loved him and he would reply “I love each and every one of you”.  It was a great time to be in London and for me a great time to be a student at SOAS, the School of Oriental and AFRICAN studies where Mandela was hero to all and about the only person who could unite all the students whatever their race or religion.
Nelson Mandela always kept to the democratic principles and made no effort to extend his time as President like many other African leaders or nominally elected leaders like Putin in Russia.  Mandela even learned Afrikaans and took the effort to find out the worries and concerns of the normal white people in South Africa until hard-liner Nazi like Afrikaans were totally marginalised and isolated.
Nelson Mandela Statue

He already has a statue opposite Parliament but now there will be demand that a grand statue will be built at Trafalgar Square

After his time as President, Nelson Mandela became the unofficial world leader and moral compass. When George Bush Jr spoke out against Mandela when he saw through the reasons to invade Iraq, the world  realised who was the real man of peace and stature.  Mandela calmly and with dignity dismissed Bush as being “a small man”.
It’s hard to sum up the achievements of Nelson Mandela though probably the fact that I have written all of this from the other side of the world and racial divide is as good a notion as any.  Nelson Mandela was like a symbolic Grandfather who reminded the world of how they should act and everyone loved him for what he went through and what he did.
Mandela and Dalai Lama 1996 Cape Town

Two great men of peace. Nelson Mandela and The Dalai Lama

In March this year I lost my mother and today it seems that I have lost a third Grandfather, albeit one I never met.  His funeral will be attended Kings and Queens and Presidents and Prime Ministers but it is in the hearts and minds of those of us who protested and supported him and those who later loved him that will ensure he is remembered for all time.  To Nelson Mandela, everyone was special and everyone valuable not matter who they were and the world is a less nice place without him.  Let’s hope we learn from his actions and live as he would have wanted us to.
Nelson Mandela in London

Nelson Mandela in London

Make Poverty History

Nelson Mandela addressing the crowds in Trafalgar Square a the Make Poverty History

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About Stephen Liddell

I am a writer and traveller with a penchant for history and getting off the beaten track. With several books to my name including a #1 seller, I also write environmental, travel and history articles for magazines as well as freelance work. Recently I've appeared on BBC Radio and Bloomberg TV and am waiting on the filming of a ghost story on British TV. I run my own private UK tours company (Ye Olde England Tours) with small, private and totally customisable guided tours run by myself!
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11 Responses to Nelson Mandela, the man and the times

  1. Ankur Mithal says:

    Sensitive portrayal of a great human being. His death is a loss not just to South Africans but to the whole peace-loving world.

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  2. That’s a very moving tribute. To be honest most of it just passed me by, even when I was working in London. But I do remember when he was freed and where I was (sort of like where we you when Kennedy was killed – which I don’t remember). We were on a coach in France on our way to a cross-country skiing holiday, and the news came over the radio. The couple opposite us cheered. Everyone else looked at them as though they were aliens! However, I did get myself a bit more informed when I read John Pilger’s Freedom Next Time, which has a section on Mandela, the ANC and South Africa. If you haven’t read the book I do recommend it. Other sections in the book are on India, Mauritius, Afghanistan – and the Palestinian/Israeli war of course.

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    • Thank you so much. I think it was because I just happened to be the right age, ie not at work, and I remember watching his first appearance on TV and not quite being able to believe it was happening.

      I’m glad that he fulfilled the dreams of everyone who supported him and his cause as too often it all goes wrong or people fail to live up to expectations but somehow despite a huge amount of hope and expectation, he managed it.

      I haven’t read that book but it comes at just the write time for Christmas. I do have The Long Walk To Freedom which is a great read.

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  3. merrildsmith says:

    I followed the news of his death yesterday afternoon and evening, and I read and heard many tributes. I enjoyed your very personal tribute and reflection on Mandela’s life.
    (It will be interesting to see how he is portrayed in the new movie with Idris Elba. Maybe it’s already opened in the UK. It hasn’t opened around here yet, but we’ve been seeing trailers.)

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    • Here, it happened just at bed time so I only saw the initial announcement live.

      Funnily enough there was a premier of the movie last night in London when the news broke. I saw the trailer a few weeks ago and am waiting keenly to see it.

      I’m glad you enjoyed my tribute to Nelson Mandela, there was always going to be so much more that could have been included no matter what I wrote.

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  4. Francis says:

    I really appreciated this moving blog – your words are absolutely the right ones to have been used to describe this greatest oif men.

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  5. That moment when individuals discover that it is people that make the world a great and special place to live. Only people such as this man can make that kind of magic spread like wildfire; the trick is to never forget what they taught. I loved the movie Invictus. May he live on in the hearts and minds of those who learn not to fear speaking truth to power.

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  6. Boyer Writes says:

    Stephen, very well written and heart-felt. It is interesting that those who stand up to the wrongs of the world suffer greatly…either by assassination as in the case of Gandhi in India, Martin Luther King, in USA or by imprisonment for so many years by Nelson Mandela. God did not promise us an easy life if we were to make life here on earth better. I was reading today in the Holy Scriptures that “evil does not like light “and those who stand for the light will be tested and tried…as were all the followers of Jesus…in past history and today..as the Coptic Christians. It takes strength to stand against darkness…and we PRAY that God will give us that strength. Thanks again for your words. Nancy at Boyer Writes

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  7. Tomasiamondlane says:

    I love nelson mandela. When i was in grade 4 i read amazing things about him.

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  8. Tomasiamondlane says:

    And i love him

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