No new words have made an appearance on this blog for many months. Today though is one of those times when they must.
What can I say about “Mandiba” that thousands of better commentators than me have not already said? The peaceful home death at the age of 95,yesterday evening, of the first black president of the Republic of South Africa had hardly been unexpected this year after several ‘last calls’ and a long spell in hospital.
And yet, it was one of those few departures from this fragile state we call life which drew tears across the world, and will imprint itself on the memory for decades to come. As another first black president, of the most powerful nation in the world, Barack Obama, put it, Nelson Mandela no longer belongs to us, he belongs to the ages.
I too had tears, I too have memories. I was but a boy during the most brutal, toughest years of apartheid. As a young adult, sad to tell, I formed my opinions of the nasty ‘old’ South Africa with a stereotype based on one harsh boss from that huge country, who I had the misfortune to encounter in one of my first temporary jobs in a local packing factory.
I was never a student protestor, really, but I remember the silence, as well as the tears, as the audience emerged silently from Cardiff Odeon during my first year at university as a mature student, at the end of Cry Freeom, Lord Attenborough’s masterful film about the life and death of Steve Biko. My local borough council so celebrated this other freedom fighter that it named a road after him, sadly rather shorter than the one walked to freedom by his compatriot.
Attenborough’s portrayal of all too real events, showed Donald Woods and his family challenging this obscenely inhumane system through the medium of words rather than weapons, until they like so many others were forced into exile to continue the fight. And it was in London that many South Africans found the freedom to do so.
These men and women showed that you could meet a ‘nice’ South African. contrary to the assertion of the brilliant satirical song from Not the Nine O’Clock News, some thirty years ago. Satire too can strike at the heart of the pretensions of the powerful.
There were no jokes in last night’s news, a little after nine now and important enough to displace the rest of the evening’s schedule on BBC One. This was a man who displaced Britain’s normal top topic on the news, fearsome weather, as well as the predictable prattlings of domestic politicians about the Chancellor’s autumn statement to parliament earlier that day.
Dimbleby and Neil alike didn’t just take a back seat, but were rightly ushered out of the theatre as even Question Time and This Week were ditched for that not always useful phenomenon of rolling news, not even known on British TV when Mr Mandela took his first walk on the mainland, free at last after 27 years in Robben Island prison. Back in Britain, coverage of his release interrupted the Sunday evening Antiques Roadshow mid-flow.
This venerable old specimen of humanity breathed his last with timing that seems to come straight out of the script of drama, but could not have been more poignant. It happened as in another film theatre, this time at a premiere at the iconic Odeon Leicester Square, the applause turned to silence as the director of A Long Walk to Freedom, an acclaimed biopic of Mandela’s life, walked on with Idris Elba, bearing an uncanny likeness to Mandela in his portrayal of him. Both had the difficult task of announcing that this monumental hero had finally really left the stage. HRH Prince William, with Kate by his side, speaking to journalists afterwards was visibly moved.
Was it chance, or some power beyond understanding, that saw this colossal figure on the world stage die on a South African summer evening, as thousands of miles and a hemisphere away, Londoners were trying to take in this sorrowful news as the centre of the city saw its traditional start to the Christmas season? Just a few hours earlier, the mayor of Oslo and London dignitaries had joyfully turned on the lights of a huge Norway spruce a short distance from the royal premiere, this time in Trafalgar Square.
Often considered the nation’s Christmas tree, this annual tradition started as a gift from the people of Oslo to the people of London and by extension the whole of Britain, for their help and support during the darkest days of World War II. The days of a Nazi dictator who, unlike Mandela, deserves neither celebrating nor naming, but whose horrific acts should no more be forgotten than should the evils of the old South African regime. Remembered, but never repeated, please God.
Mercifully, the world has come a long way since the global conflict of the forties and the imposition of apartheid which followed so soon after in South Africa, as soldiers, sailors and airmen who had fought with the then Union for the defence of the British Empire, returned home to a land that was to become a new battleground in the battle against prejudice, hatred and scapegoating, and soon ostracised from the new British Commonwealth of nations.
Who could have foreseen following the Sharpeville Massacre, or in the homelands which were no better than the Jewish ghettos of Nazism, that a man would be released from captivity after a quarter century, who would transform his nation, peacefully, without the expected civil war. Who would bring to birth a “rainbow nation”, with a multi-coloured flag and a national anthem melding European influence with indigenous African, harmoniously. It took a colossus of a spirit, that of Nelson Mandela, to do so. But with almost super-human doses of forgiveness and reconciliation.
It seems an even longer walk back to 1805, and to the battle which inspired the building of Trafalgar Square. A battle which killed the admiral of the fleet, but made him a hero. It may be a little embarrassing at times, two centuries on to remember that battle was between the naval forces of two neighbours, Britain and France fighting off a third party nation’s shores. And it hardly fits the spirit of the entente cordiale.
Mandela’s main monument in London is a statue in a third space in the City of Westminster, this one currently acknowledged by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. Mandela’s human eyes may shine no more, but his bronze features will be admired probably longer than Nelson’s even, inParliament Square, with the statue unveiled in 2007. Already, this has become something of a shrine and flowers are being laid at its base as people come, again silently by and large, to respectfully remember this giant of a man who was also as playful as a puppy even in advanced old age. Everybody’s favourite grandpa, in fact, particularly to the children of his nation.
Yet perhaps just as fitting is to stand in the square named for a naval hero and from whom, presumably, this 20th century Nelson, born as World War I drew to a close, was given his name. For gaze across the huge hectare area of London’s largest public square and you see South Africa House, its flags today flying at half-mast and adorned with flowers too, maybe even many from the myriad botanical beauties of Nelson Mandela’s homeland. Here it was that people were prepared to protest for several decades to secure for all the people of the southernmost country of the African continent, the most precious gift anybody can receive, at Christmas or anytime- liberty.
Here it is now too, in the sqaure, that on Good Friday the passion of Jesus, born in a stable two thousand years plus ago, is now re-enacted most years to an audience of thousands. Unjust imprisonment, brutal flogging and in His case death, even death on a cross, finally brought liberty for all mankind, Christians believe.
Nelson Mandela was a model Christian disciple, but still a fallible man with weaknesses and failings. Let there be not too much hagiography written between now and his state funeral on Sunday December 15th. May he rest in peace, and rise in glory.