Mandela

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.

If you only have time to watch one documentary…

…make it this one. Or rather, this entire series.

I’m pretty sure there’s more episodes to come – consider this advanced warning.
(FYI it’s non-downloadable, so you will only get a week once the last one’s aired.) 

There are few TV programmes who’s arrival each week I actually look forward to (one of the bonuses of not having a real TV and relying upon the internet is suddenly realising that that show you like is now available to watch), but this is currently one of them. Airing on Tuesday evenings on BBC4, this series covers the history of the struggle against apartheid.
It’s simply brilliant for a number of reasons. Firstly, it’s an in-depth look at an issue that often just features in programmes about Mandela. Now, I’m in awe of Mandela (in fact, I deeply regret that I will now – almost certainly – never see him in the flesh), but he is not the beginning and end of the apartheid movement. 
It covers issues thematically, rather than being a linear explanation of how things evolved. So, for example, there’s an episode about the sports boycotts, and another on the economic boycotts. It’s a brilliant idea, as it meant that particularly aspects could be linked together in meaningful ways. Last week’s episode was primarily about the imposition of the Afrikaans language in township schools and the resulting uprising in Soweto, but was juxtaposed with the Dutch anti-apartheid movement – a fascinating connection given the Afrikaaners’ Dutch origins.

It also manages to show a range of opinions, rather than simply the anti-apartheid movement’s voice. The people who were there, who were involved in the campaign are included – ANC members, church leaders, campaigners from all over the world and students from Soweto. But so are those who fought to preserve apartheid – members of the South African government and key businessmen. It’s important to hear both voices to understand why it was such a protracted battle. 

It’s not comfortable viewing, and I’m not just talking about the images of battered or dead bodies. Having grown up knowing why we didn’t fill our car up at the nearest petrol station to our home (because it was Shell and we were boycotting them because of their presence in South Africa), I’d naively assumed that most intelligent, sensible people were also anti-apartheid. I was very wrong – UN resolutions asking for economic sanctions to be imposed upon SA were rejected partly thanks to Britain voting against them in the UN Security Council. I was also shocked to discover how massively divided New Zealand had become over the issue of the Springboks touring the country in the late 70s/early 80s. Their Prime Minister, quite frankly, was nothing but an idiot, insisting that sport had nothing to do with politics and even suggesting he’d run over protestors in his car in order to ensure matches could take place. It made for shocking television. 
Recommending it to my students the other week, I was slightly distressed to realise that all of them had been born since Mandela’s release, and most of them weren’t old enough to remember the ANC’s victory in the 1994 elections – events that I remember vividly. In my life-time, we gone from a country being in the grip of a terrible regime that stripped the majority of its population of its human rights, to it holding free elections. True, things are by no means perfect in South Africa, but who would have thought that things would change so dramatically this time thirty years ago? 
This programme is crucial viewing for two reasons. Firstly, we need to not forget what happened in South Africa – both the terrible atrocities and the great way in which many nations of the world fought together against injustice. Secondly, we need to have hope that similar changes can happen in other places where oppression exists. 
When I visited Israel/Palestine in 2007, I met an Ecumenical Accompanier in Hebron who was from Johannesburg. Hebron is one of the worst places in the Occupied Palestine Territories (OPT) for violence between the Jewish settlers and Palestinians and the Accompaniers have a difficult job (a Palestinian in our group was arrested while we were there). But when I talked to this woman about what hope there was for peace, she mentioned that thirty years previously she hoped for, but didn’t expect, change in South Africa. She felt that if it could happen there, surely there was hope for Israel/Palestine. 
So do watch it, and ask yourselves a question: how come this series was made in 2010 and it’s taken this long for it to be shown in the UK?? Scandalous. 

Living idols

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 the tea party where I met my sister’s in-laws for the first time, prompted a classic difficult family moment. Future father-in-law 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.