The recent passing of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, Madiba, will leave a large void not just in South Africa but the world. This immense figure who epitomises struggle and forgiveness will be sorely missed.
As the world mourns his passing and celebrates his influential life, I took the opportunity to take a trip into the centre of London and three particular locations where the great man is commemorated.
My first location is a large head and shoulder bust of Mandela, mounted on a high plinth outside the Royal Festival Hall on the South Bank, by the sculptor Ian Walters and erected in 1985. This was during the time when Mandela was incarcerated in the notorious Robben Island prison and was classed as a ‘banned’ person in South Africa. In the UK the Thatcher government was reluctant to support the call for Mandela and many other political prisoner’s release, and certainly didn’t support the idea of sanctions to try and bring about justice and change. And because of the right-wing apathy for the situation, many left-wing councils named roads and buildings after Mandela, to keep his name alive and in the public consciousness.
My next stop was the Nelson Mandela statue in Parliament Square, again designed by Ian Walters and finally erected in 2007 following a number of disagreements about where it should be located. The unveiling ceremony was attended by the great man himself.
I was surprised how few people were at the statue, but it was a subdued and respectful gathering as a steady number of people gathered to lay flowers and candles and leave personal messages. There were plenty of photographers on hand to capture the growing tributes.
My final stop was the Embassy, South Africa House, at Trafalgar Square. Similar to Parliament Square, there was a small but growing collection of tributes at the door to the embassy, but instead of a quiet gathering, the place was full of joy, singing and dancing, with a group of South African men, women and children leading the singing of freedom songs. I found myself singing along to the few words I remembered of Nkosi Sikelele Afrika – s0 moving!
This brought back many memories for me. During the apartheid days, when Mandela and many others were imprisoned, I had taken an interest in the anti apartheid movement, sometimes accompanying my good friend Jenny to join protests at the Non Stop Picket (NSP), which was organised by the City of London Anti Apartheid Group (City Group).
It was a random re-tweet I’d seen that led me to discover a blog, called Non-Stop Against Apartheid, that a former member of the NSP has set up as part of his research project into ‘solidarity activism’. I can’t pretend to know what that means, but the blog is a fascinating insight into the reasons behind the formation of the group, its relationship with the mainstream anti-apartheid movement, and more interestingly, its relationship with the government of the day and the police. Certainly, articles I’ve read have jogged my memory and made some sense of the stranger things that were happening during this time, although my recollection is a bit vague – it was over 25 years ago!
But while the great man and his imposing presence will be deeply missed the world over, his legacy and his capacity for forgiveness in what, for most people, would be an unforgivable situation, can only be an inspiration to us all. From what I read, things still seem far from perfect in South Africa, but I hope this event will help refocus on what Nelson Mandela stood for. And what he stood for could be equally applied in many other countries!
“During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this 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 will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for. But, my lord, if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” ~ Nelson Mandela, Rivonia Trial, 1964
RIP Nelson Mandela 1918-2013