Reflecting on the death of Mandela

Nelson Mandela’s death has been marked by virtually universal grief, even among those who once supported apartheid. My first significant exposuire to political activity came through the anti-apartheid movement, so I’m going to go ‘off topic’, and reflect on what Mandela meant to a previous generation of anti-apartheid activists.

Mandela was charismatic and appealing as a political leader. And there can be little doubt that he played a major role, not just in the transition from apartheid, but in determining that the transition was a peaceful one. He took risks to build bridges, not just between white and black South Africans, but also with the Cape Coloured community, who felt abandoned by both of the major racial groupings. His decision to embrace the once-hated Springbok rugby side, and to wear the green jersey at the World Cup, was a brave one. Tt worked – though the task of reassuring the Afrikaaners was helped by the fact that South Africa went on to lift the trophy.

But this last week has also taught me something about the different generations of anti-apartheid activists. I’d never heard of Mandela when I became involved in the anti-apartheid movement. I heard a few speakers from the ANC, of course, but I also listened to leaders of the black South African trade union movement (the white unions refused to enrol black members) and increasingly to members of the student movement. Many of them were exiles in Britain – and I was proud that my university funded a yearly South African scholarship, paid half by the student union and half by staff donations.

When I did hear of Mandela, there was no reason to single him out as special. The fact that he was a communist didn’t endear him to the libertarian left, who saw his party as a handmaiden of Soviet imperialism abroad and a devious force attempting to control the official Anti-Apartheid movement at home. Anyway, like many on the libertarian left I was highly suspicious of the cult of personality, so I was distinctly unimpressed when the movement started to focus on one single figure. After all, there were many political prisoners: if anything, I knew far more about Steve Biko than Mandela.

With a young family and a job, I didn’t even think of travelling to join the four-year-long free Mandela picket outside the South African embassy in London. I boycotted South African products, and refused an invitation to a conference (probably mistakenly as it turned out), and I applied and was shortlisted for a job in southern Africa with the Commonwealth Trades Union Congress (which I failed to get).

I looked with some scepticism at the new campaigners with their Mandela concerts and portrait posters. But boy, it helped that the steady drudge of letter writing, lobbying and demonstrating – described in detail by Roger Fieldhouse in his history of the movement – was lent some glamour by musicians and actors, the big name events and media debates that eventually turned Mandela into the world’s biggest celebrity politician. It is much to his credit that the old fighter treated his celebrity status as a political tool, blunting any criticism with self-effacing modesty – to the point of telling the Spice Girls that meeting them was the greatest moment of his life (who knows whether they grasped the irony).

And it’s not very edifying to see people scrabbling for the borrowed glitter of Mandela’s name. What we did in Britain was small beer. We renamed some streets, and reduced our consumption of imported fruit; we probably undermined our governments’ reluctance to support sanctions. We certainly messed up a few sporting encounters against whites-only touring sides. But we didn’t stop the supply of arms, and Britain continued to be South Africa’s largest export market.

The struggle against apartheid took place within South Africa, not here. It wasn’t about rock concerts and meetings above a nice pub; it could often be vicious and deadly, not only on the side of the brutally oppressive police and army, but also sometimes on the side of the ANC (remember ‘necklacing’?). It long predated the ‘free Mandela’ campaign, and it isn’t over yet. And I suspect that Mandela and the ANC’s legacy will be pored over by historians for some time to come.

All the same, I am glad to have supported, from afar, apartheid’s replacement by what is still an open and democratic society, and increasingly a multiracial one. And as a lifelong rugby fan, I found the Springboks’ tribute to Mandela – a small thing in itself – a fantastic acknowledgement of his role in turning a white-only sport into a symbol of multiracial reconciliation and hope.

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One thought on “Reflecting on the death of Mandela

  1. Terrific article, thank you. Speaking of musicians, Hamish Henderson got the Corries to record this in 1968:

    This is from the album cover notes: “One very unusual track on the album was found amongst Hamish’s personal things where it had lain for some years. In 1968 Hamish invited The Corrie Folk Trio (Ronnie Browne, Bill Smith and the late Roy Williamson) to the School of Scottish Studies to record his song Rivonia (Free Mandela). Martin Carthy, by chance, was visiting Roy Williamson and remembers the occasion. Without much arm-twisting Hamish convinced The Corrie Folk Trio to rehearse and record the song on the spot, a recording earmarked specifically for Nelson Mandela and the freedom fighters in South Africa.

    A copy of the recording was in fact smuggled on to Robben Island where Mandela heard and received it with delight. Hamish later telephoned Bill Smith to say he had received a letter from Mandela thanking him for his ‘time, effort and concern’. Years later Mandela thanked Hamish in person while visiting Scotland – on the occasion of Nelson Mandela being presented with the Freedom of the City of Glasgow.”

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