The first time I heard the name of Nelson Mandela was in 1981, when my native city of Glasgow became the first in the world to award him its freedom. At the time, it was controversial; he was in prison in South Africa, so how could he be free in Glasgow? And wasn’t he a terrorist? The city, many people felt, had made a laughing stock of Glasgow. These naysayers included my parents.
Then I discovered he was an enemy of those who in 1976 had made the news by slaughtering schoolchildren in a far away place called Soweto, and started to feel he couldn’t be ALL bad. As I grew older, became an adult, I learned a lot more about him and his struggle.
As a member of the Anti Apartheid Movement, I attended demos, rallies and leaflettings and I scoured the news. And the Nelson Mandela I learned to know was not a terrorist but an extraordinary hero.
Apartheid South Africa treated its majority black population not just as second class citizens, but not even as citizens at all. It was racism taken to its logical conclusion. The brilliant young lawyer Nelson Mandela wasn’t allowed to vote, use the same swimming pools as white people or even live where he chose; his children wouldn’t be able to attend decent schools. It was utterly evil. Not unreasonably, Madiba (his clan name and a term of respect) decided this system should be torn down and became a member of the ANC (African National Congress) to fight it, and he moved swiftly through its ranks. He led the movement to using armed force against military installations and other infrastructure, although never against people. In 1964, along with seven others, he was sentenced to life in prison, with hard labour, on charges of attempting to overthrow a government whose overthrow was in truth a moral necessity.
The convicts were sent to Robben Island, where they broke rocks in a quarry every day. They also discussed politics and the struggle. Madiba was there for eighteen years and then transferred to a mainland prison where he lived in conditions that were a bit more humane. In all the time that he was imprisoned, his reputation grew while the apartheid government’s reputation became ever more notorious and a steadily lengthening list of countries imposed economic and other sanctions against it. Eventually, those sanctions took their toll and the regime was forced to start talking to Mandela, by now the unquestionable moral leader of his country.
They tried to soften him by offering him privileges such as visits from his wife (married not long before he was sent to jail) and family. Madiba refused such privileges because they were not on offer to his fellow prisoners. His moral constancy, along with the economic woes produced by sanctions, finally wore them down and on the momentous day of 11th February 1990, after almost 27 years in an apartheid prison, he was released.
Those who felt that the elderly, white-haired man now among his people would not be able to maintain his legendary status were soon to be disappointed. Far from being violently embittered, Madiba told the movement’s hotter heads to throw their pangas into the sea and called off the armed struggle. Far from hating white people, he put them on his staff and even in his personal security team. He fought, as he had said, against white domination and against black domination. One person one vote was his immovable objective, and the regime could not in the end stand against the supreme morality of that objective. In 1994 there were extraordinary scenes as millions of people bore the blistering African sun to queue (in some cases all day) to vote for the first time in their lives in their country’s first ever free election.
The result was never in doubt. The ANC was handed a landslide victory and Nelson Mandela became his country’s first black president, to waves of joy in South Africa and around the world. After that, his by now vast moral authority never wavered. He could have been president for life, but, true to his democratic ideals, he stood down after just one five year term.
He then became a kind of global moral champion. He stood up for gay rights; he helped find justice for the family of Stephen Lawrence, a black teenager murdered by four racist thugs in South London; he undoubtedly contributed to the civil rights advances that helped Barack Obama to become the first black president of the United States. He became admired and loved with a breadth and depth matched by no one in the modern age, and that means by no one in the history of humanity.
In 1993, he came to Glasgow to receive the award made twelve years previously, and this time it wasn’t controversial. Thousands of us stood in the rain in George Square and cheered, chanted and sang for this astonishing man, who spoke from the stage and even danced for us.
And last weekend, as my wife and I sat watching television, the broadcast was interrupted by the shocking news that Madiba had died. We had always known he was old and would die some day not VERY far in the future, and that he had been very ill for most of the year, but still the news was like a heavyweight punch in the gut. We were in shock, and then in tears, as the story unfolded and as his remarkable life story was retold and retold, over and over again, on almost every channel. As I write this, his funeral is only hours away. It will be an emotional day, hard to take but necessary to take part in as far as is possible from six thousand miles away.
Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, Madiba, the father of modern South Africa and surely the most loved human being who has ever lived, is gone. I remember that anew every day, and every day my heart sinks a little and the world feels far less than it used to be because he is no longer in it. But we still have his shining example, his glorious example, and we still have all of the beautiful memories he has left us.
Madiba will not be forgotten.