Last night, via a Guardian news alert on my locked iPhone screen, I heard the news I knew was coming, but rather hoped might never appear. Nelson Mandela had died aged 95. [Actually, there were two Guardian alerts. The first got his age wrong by a year – classic Grauniad.]

I’d looked at my phone just as I entered my building after an evening out. I let out an audible groan and made my way up the 6 flights of stairs with more speed than usual in order to get the TV on and settle down for some rolling news coverage. I’m not going to lie, there were tears in the offing, which might have fallen, had my flatmate not appeared. Mandela has entered the ultimate freedom and the world mourns its loss.

Later this afternoon, I’ll take a walk to South Africa House to view the tributes. As I stand there, I’ll remember Theo – a South African woman at our church in the 90’s, who voted for the first time in that building in 1994. Previously, she’d watched as her passport was destroyed in front of her in the very same building, at the height of apartheid. I might go as far as Parliament Square to look at the statue of Mandela that stands at the corner nearest Westminster Abbey.

Mandela, Parliament Square

I could write a whole post about what Mandela meant to me, my family, our friends, the world, but I won’t. In fact, I wrote a post about my regret at never seeing him in the flesh over four years ago, so in a rare move, I’ll repeat it here. It deserves it.


Reading an excellent article in the Guardian today, a sobering thought struck me:

It is pretty inevitable that I will now never get to see Nelson Mandela in the flesh.

The article outlined how South Africa have recently done a poll similar to the BBC’s ‘Great Britons’ poll of a few years back. Thing is, with the top 10 announced, the winner is so clear that there will simply be a contest as to what order the other 9 will be in. As the article states: “Mandela is that rare thing: a man turned into statues in his own lifetime”.

Mandela is most definitely the living person I most admire. I can’t actually remember a time when his name was not in my brain. I grew up against a backdrop of parents passionately involved in the anti-apartheid struggle (even if the first I understood of this was why we didn’t buy Shell petrol or Cape apples). Watching Cry Freedom, probably aged no more than 10 (I blame the babysitters) had a profound affect on me. Aged 9, with a bad dose of the flu, I lay on a chaise lounge at a friend’s house, watching Mandela being driven into freedom.

He’s my mother’s ‘memorable figure in history’ for her bank security questions. (She should worry about how much info I have on her banking – pin number, special date, maiden name…) The sharing of this fact at a social function resulted in an awkward conversation. Someone present insisted that Mandela was a no good terrorist – I believe the phrase “once a terrorist, always a terrorist” was used. It went down like a lead balloon.

The thing that bugs me is that I’ve had missed opportunities to see this man in person. Whilst at university, he gave a lecture at my campus – but in the holidays when no students were around (or even informed). When he launched the Make Poverty History campaign from Trafalgar Square I was stuck at my desk in the first week of a brand new job. My last opportunity – his birthday concert this time last year – was a missed one.

In four days time he will turn 91. His health is failing and he rarely travels, let alone leaves South Africa.

There are plenty of people I’d like to meet one day, from George Clooney (on a shallow level) to Judi Dench or even Obama (I have met Clinton – of the Bill variety – that was exciting), but Mandelas come along once in a blue moon. In fact, less than that. His life brought hope to so many and changed a country some though unchangeable (no matter what has happened since).

I just hope that when the sad day comes and he is no longer with us, he doesn’t do a Mother Theresa and become overshadowed by the death of someone much less worthy.


I am thankful that that last line wasn’t a piece of terrible foreboding. In April, I genuinely feared that Mandela’s death might be overshadowed by Thatcher’s. I was perpetually concerned that a royal death might do it. But now that it has happened, there is suitable space for mourning, reflection and memories. I’m hoping that this will be an excellent opportunity for the generation born since his release from prison to understand more of just how important he was. How many in the 1980’s believed apartheid might never end, yet by 1994 a former prisoner was president.

Last night, someone observed that December 5th in the Church of England calendar has no saints day and perhaps Mandela would be a suitable addition. I’d be on board with that.

May the memory of Mandela never be allowed to die.

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