Madiba and Me

1 Conversation

Face of Nelson Mandela superimposed upon map of Africa.


I was a feckless youth, and when I was thrown out of the parental home as a teenager I spent a summer working in hotels followed by a period of unemployment and homelessness. I’d read Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, but had not realized that world still existed in the 1970s (and sadly still does). By the time I’d settled down in a steady job I was filled with a burning sense of injustice and rage. At the time the vile racist National Front was on the rise and I joined the Anti Nazi League and found a just cause to channel my anger. I remember my parents, who grew up in the Second World War, telling me they were proud I was taking a stand against fascism, then becoming alarmed as things turned violent. I became increasingly militant, I fought the racists in the streets and if the police got in the way I fought them. I even flirted with Trotskyism and dreamed of violent revolution. I am still proud I stood up against racist thugs, but believing I could change the world for the better with the boot, the fist and the burning barricade was naive and as much to do with my own rage as a real sense of justice (I should have read Orwell more carefully). I did become aware of a wider world and great injustices around that world. I will never forget the Chilean refugees I met – imagine having your head pushed down into a bath full of human faeces until you think you will drown again and again and again, or a government that uses rape as a weapon. Through it all there was one figure that acted as a quiet, calm inspiration. Nelson Mandela had been in prison when I was a child and the images of napalmed children in Vietnam were burned into my conscience. He was still there when Martin Luther King died for daring to dream of a world were all children could live together in peace, when Steve Biko was beaten to death and when the school kids of Soweto were gunned down.

By the 1980s I’d mellowed and matured. Amnesty International, Friends of the Earth and CND had replaced Socialist Worker and the Anti-Nazi League, and Marx, Trotsky and Lenin had been supplanted as my inspirations by Gandhi, Dr. King and of course Nelson Mandela. On a trip to London, I came across the City of London Anti Apartheid Group’s non-stop picket outside the South African Embassy. I became a regular on the picket doing overnight stints once or twice a week on my days off and becoming a steward. It was no picnic: racists, angry white South Africans, drunken thugs and police harassment were the norm. We stood our ground but we didn’t fight back. The police never arrested the thugs but if we resisted it would be a night in the cells. It was obvious many officers were sympathetic to our cause (although some of the hot-headed clones of my younger self on the picket didn’t help), but in the Met they stuck together in those days, and wouldn’t speak out or give evidence against a colleague, even one who was disgracing them by loudly voicing racist views in Trafalgar Square.

Then I found a voice and a type of courage I didn’t know I had. One evening I was talking to two lovely middle-aged African American women who had signed the petition I had shown them, when “Constable Savage” (the worst of the racist cops who was nick-named after a character on Not the Nine O’clock News) started a rant. The women were horrified that an English Bobby was expressing opinions the worst kind of red neck sheriff would keep to themselves. It really angered me, but after all the low level abuse and harassment on the picket I’d learned to control and use that rage, and he got as good as he gave. He was as ugly on the outside as he was on the inside, so my opening gambit was to tell him loudly that the reason he couldn’t shut up was that his tongue was too big for his mouth (OK it wasn’t Oscar Wilde but it got a laugh). Then I turned to the other “bobbies” and said “When you’re on the beat and you get glares and sneers – it’s because of him. When people call you pig and filth and Babylon – it’s because of him. When they won’t cooperate – it’s because of him. Next time you’re cowering behind a riot shield – it will be because of him and racist cops like him”. All the time I could see “Constable Savage” recovering from the initial shock of being made to look a fool and getting redder and redder and angrier and angrier. As I continued I thought, this is it if I’m lucky it will be a night in the cells, a kicking and a trumped up charge when I go up before the Magistrates, but I wasn’t going to stop. What he had done was wrong and no matter what the consequences were I was not going to let it pass. If I did I’d be no better than the people who condone racism, discrimination and torture, or those who appeased the Nazis. Constable Savage turned to his colleagues for support, at the same time as me he saw that half of them were smirking, the rest were deliberately ignoring him and some were nodding at each of my comments. If I’d spoken out like that in South Africa it would have been the sambok (rhino whip) or bullet, and in a score of other places it could have cost me my life (and still would in many). How lucky I am to live in a liberal democracy were I am free to express my opinion, even if it offends a person in a position of power. Everyone deserves that right and that is what Madiba sat in prison for 26 years to bring about for the people of South Africa and in doing so inspired the world.

For a while I worried that Constable Savage would get his revenge one dark night or during some confused scuffle on the picket. Every time he came on duty he would give me a evil look – I soon worked out that rather than glaring back, if I smiled sweetly his big cauliflowered ears would go bright red and his mates would nudge each other and giggle (some of them became quite friendly, which earned me the disdain of some of the hotheads on the picket). He thought he’d got his chance on Nelson Mandela’s birthday: we were going mark the day by walking silently around the Embassy and placing flowers on the main gates. The police made it known this would be an (unspecified) offence and we would be arrested if we went ahead. I took the lead, and as I approached the gate there was Constable Savage, grinning in anticipation. All I could think of was the scene from the film Gandhi when the salt marchers are clubbed down as they advance without defending themselves on a line of colonial police. Afraid but determined, I stared ahead seemly impassive and holding out the flower I kept walking towards the gate. Savage backed away confused realising I wasn’t going to shove him or give him any excuse, but I wasn’t going to back down and I placed the flower on the gate. The whole “criminal offence” line had been a bluff which we had called, and I got told off by the organisers: I didn’t realise it but rather than being silent I’d approached the gate singing the South African song “Mandela, Mandela – Mandela says freedom now – in the land of Africa”. After that I remembered from my street fighting days that nasty little bullies like Constable Savage, whether they are racist cops, BNP skinheads or self appointed “vanguards of the working class” are generally cowards who soon disappear when the bottles start flying, and now I knew they get very confused in the face of quiet determination, so poor Constable Savage went from being an ogre to a being figure of fun.

It takes a lot more courage to stand up for something you believe in a non-violent dignified way than to get angry and go toe to toe with your enemy, and if you’re brave enough to see it through and prepared to take the consequences no matter what, it is far more effective. Anger breeds anger, hate breeds hate, violence breeds violence. Only patient persistent love triumphs – Nelson Mandela’s example taught me that.

Worse than the blows, taunts, and threats of the thugs were the most corrosive things of all to any aspirations for freedom and justice, which are indifference and cynicism. But Nelson Mandela’s example kept us going when people swept past ignoring us, or self satisfied smug cynics patiently explained we couldn’t change the world or the natural order of things. Nelson Mandela proved them wrong, and because of him when people claim there will never be peace in the middle east, that oppression of the weak and the vulnerable will never end, that the there will never be peace or justice in the world I will not despair. He showed there is always hope and that one day we will overcome.

I wept with joy when he walked to freedom and when I saw the images of the long lines queuing patiently to cast their votes for the first time in South Africa. I wept with thousands of others in Wembley Stadium when he came to London. I’d arrived early and was crushed against the barriers right at the front when he walked on stage with a smile that took in 70, 000 people and then he did the most extraordinary thing. He thanked us, after all he had gone through, he thanked us, after everything the men, women and children of South Africa had gone through, he thanked us. Everything I’ve described about my experiences in the anti-apartheid movement is so trivial in comparison with what Madiba and thousands of others in the struggle went through it is almost comical, yet he thanked us for the little we had done. Even now it brings tears to my eyes to think of that immense quiet dignity and compassion.

He is gone now and we will never see that smile again or hear that gentle humorous voice but as the song says “you can blow out a candle but you can’t blow out a flame”, and the flame he lit in the hearts of those who burn for peace and justice will endure.

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