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Mandela and the spirit of South Africa

nelson mandela

Probably no other figure has ever united the world the way Mandela does now – and maybe no-one else ever will. Mercy Ships under a Creative Commons Licence

Watching and listening to the coverage of Nelson Mandela’s awe-inspiring life has often been a moving experience – and the outpouring of emotion and respect all around the world is unquestionably genuine. Probably no other figure has ever united the world the way Mandela does now – and maybe no-one else ever will.

But I cannot help but recall the time, in the 1970s and 1980s, when governments and corporations that are now so free with their praise did nothing whatsoever to bring down the apartheid regime, found ways of evading sanctions and continued to hold the leaders of the African National Congress (ANC), Nelson Mandela included, on their terrorist watchlists.

In 1986, two years after joining this magazine, I was given a remarkable opportunity. At a time when black South Africans speaking for themselves was a completely novel idea, the New Internationalist decided to give over a whole issue to their views about the past, present and future of their country. My first two weeks in Johannesburg and Cape Town were spent just listening to a host of activists, poets and journalists. And the next two I spent bullying people to deliver articles on time while I sought out the best black photographers and illustrators.

South Africa was then in ferment, with protest against apartheid more widespread and more vociferous than ever before. Some township areas were no-go areas for the police and military, with local councils assuming autonomous control. Revolution was unmistakably in the air and, for me, as a leftwing campaigner and journalist from a country where Margaret Thatcher was at the peak of her power (and using it actively to undermine anti-apartheid initiatives), it was intoxicating. I sometimes felt like the John Reed of the 1980s, watching a revolution unfold before my eyes, as he did in Russia in 1917.

I worked with two black co-editors who helped to select all the material – two because, though it is little remembered now, there were two distinct wings of the resistance movement and both needed due acknowledgement. The United Democratic Front, the internal arm of the banned ANC, was of course the biggest, but many campaigners saw themselves as part of a ‘Black Consciousness’ movement that looked more naturally to the example of another iconic resistance leader, Steve Biko, than to Mandela.

I have never felt more privileged to be a journalist, with the access it gave me to people from all walks of life, each of them eager to communicate the reality of the situation as they saw it to a world that had hitherto turned a deaf ear. I went out for dinner one evening with two men who had been imprisoned on Robben Island. I listened, frankly rather starstruck, as they talked about their experiences there and their conversations with ‘Nelson’.

It was an extraordinary time – and I could not appreciate quite how extraordinary until I returned a year later on another project. This time we were making a film for TV called Girls Apart, which intercut between the lives of two 16-year-old schoolgirls – one black, from Soweto, and the other a white Afrikaner from a Johannesburg suburb. In the interim between my two trips the apartheid government had clamped down ruthlessly on resistance and imposed a State of Emergency. We had to work on the filming in secret, knowing that we would never be given official permission. We switched hotels every two or three days just to make ourselves a little more difficult to trace. On my daily trips into Soweto to work with Sylvia and her family, I had to watch out for roadblocks and checkpoints, to find alternative routes.

The atmosphere could not have been more different than the previous year – we filmed Sylvia mourning at the funeral of a friend who had been killed by rightwing vigilantes. She worked herself into a frenzy of grief. As the coffin was lowered into the earth, she talked to her dead friend directly, promising to consecrate herself to ‘the struggle’. ‘You were a soldier,’ she half-sang, half-moaned, ‘you’ve made me a soldier.’ Although just a schoolgirl, she had just herself been detained because she was a student representative, and had been tortured with electric shocks, as had every other teenager I met who had been detained during the township unrest.

When I spoke to Sylvia again, in 1989, she was happily still safe, and feeling positive about having appeared in the film, despite the risks attached to that. But, although she thought that even the South African government could now see that its time was over, and that freedom was now certain, she still said: ‘But the change won’t come soon. Not even in five years from now.’

She was wrong – within a matter of months, Nelson Mandela had been released from prison, and before that five years had elapsed he had been elected President. The example he set through his forgiveness of his captors and his determination to pursue reconciliation has rightly been much noted today. He is a figure who has transcended politics through his moral example and his sheer humanity – and who makes the timid, self-serving, backbiting career politicians on our various national stages look very small indeed by comparison. If ever a single person could embody the notion of One World, Nelson Mandela is surely that man.

I never met him. But in 2002 I came close. I was in New York working for UNICEF during the World Summit for Children and attended a special event in a theatre downtown. To my astonishment I found that Nelson Mandela and Graça Machel were sitting in the row in front of me, just a couple of yards away. To be honest, I found it difficult to concentrate on the proceedings on stage. I did not like to push myself forward and shake his hand – there were too many others doing that and what could I have said? But it felt like privilege enough to be in such close proximity to such a remarkable human being.

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