Mandela and Me. A homage to Nelson Mandela
This time last year, I was too sick with Malaria to pay homage to Nelson Mandela.
Crying over his obituaries made me feel even more sorry for myself – but I owe Mandela so much.
South Africa politicised me. It was the Anti-Apartheid Movement of the 1980s that made me decide to study politics at SOAS (the School of Oriental and African Studies) at the University of London. That made real my desire to come and live in Africa, a dream it took me too many years to fulfil.
Mandela was freed while I was a student at SOAS. We couldn’t wait to celebrate his freedom: just a few weeks after his release, the Awesome Man Himself appeared onstage at the now defunct Wembley Stadium – to thank the world for helping secure his release, and telling us to continue exerting pressure for the end of Apartheid.
‘Free… Nelson… Mandela!’ We sang for the thousandth time … and there Mandela was, in the flesh.
It was around this time that I made my first enquiry to VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas). “Call us again in a few years,” they said – I had little work (or life) experience – and I shelved my plans to volunteer in Africa.
My then-flatmate Holly was to move to South Africa with VSO before me – and is still there 15 years later. Visits to South Africa ‘close the circle’ for me: stays with Holly in Johannesburg give us a chance to relive our shared memories of Mandela’s release and our experiences as VSO volunteers in sub Saharan Africa. Spending World Aids Day in South Africa with her was another pivotal moment.
My pilgrimage to Mandela’s Robben Island cell was a longed-for moment.
Nelson Mandela spent nearly two decades on the other side of this metal gaol gate. Isn’t it uncanny how the outline of the African continent has emerged as the paint has chipped away? How many thousands of times did the key turn in that lock? The Robben Island tour (courtesy of previous Robben Island inmates who were incarcerated at the same time as Mandela and other heroes of the movement such as Steve Biko) is humbling beyond words.
Rereading Mandela’s obituaries, a few facts jumped out at me:
– He left power voluntarily, when his presidential term was up. He played by the rules, unlike so many African rulers who want to stay in power forever.
– Mandela stayed on the United States ‘terror watch list’ until July 1, 1988 when he was 80 years old and coming to the end of his presidency. Really? It just beggars belief now.
– Mandela visited Uganda on July 5, 1990, just five months after his release from prison. Mandela chose Uganda as the first African country outside South Africa to visit.
On writing, he wrote to one of his daughters:
“Writing is a prestigious profession which puts one right into the centre of the world and, to remain on top, one has to work really hard, the aim being a good and original theme, simplicity in expression and the use of the irreplaceable word.”
Who can possibly count the millions – billions? – of people’s lives affected by this great man. RIP Madiba, the world remains a better place for you having been in it.