“Ah, Peter, return of the prodigal son!” Nelson Mandela beamed, welcoming me to his Johannesburg home in February 2000.
Although on an official government visit, in a sense I was also being welcomed to my “home” – to South Africa, the panoramic, sunshine country of my childhood, as the first-ever British minister for Africa to be born on that continent.
Almost to the day, 10 years before, many of us had watched, tears welling up, as he had walked to freedom after 27 years in prison. And a long time before that – in March 1966 – I was a teenager aboard an ocean liner steaming out of Cape Town, past Robben Island where Mandela and his fellow leaders of the African National Congress were jailed. My anti-apartheid activist parents had been forced to leave their beloved country and the “island from hell” disappeared in the stormy mist as we headed for exile in Britain.
People forget how tough it was then, how hard the struggle was to be for decades afterwards. The resistance had been closed down, leaders such as Mandela imprisoned, tortured, banned or forced underground.
Within a few years, Mandela had almost been forgotten. British diplomats dismissed the ANC and Mandela as a busted flush. The white racist police state seemed omnipotent.
But in Britain, the Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM) had kept the flame of freedom flickering. Soon it was lit by our militant protests, which stopped white South African rugby and cricket tours in 1969-70. The country had been forced into global sporting isolation.
On Robben Island, brutal white warders, all fanatical rugby fans, vented their fury on Mandela and his comrades at the ostracism of the mighty Springboks, unwittingly communicating a morale-boosting message through the news blackout.
Barclays Bank was forced to withdraw from South Africa – a humiliation in the face of the AAM’s “boycott Barclays” campaign, which saw student protests against the bank signing up new customers during university freshers’ weeks Then in 1976 Soweto exploded as black school students took to the streets and were mown down by police and soldiers. Townships across the country erupted. Resistance grew, bursting through repression until in the 1980s it had gathered an unstoppable momentum: the economy teetered and businessman panicked.
By then Nelson Mandela’s name adorned anti-apartheid banners and placards the world over. An almost mystical, even forgotten, figure slowly became a household name, and soon the heroic symbol of the freedom struggle.
Fear struck the white ruling elite to the point where in February 1985 they tried to bribe Mandela with his freedom if he denounced the ANC’s militant resistance. He flatly refused to be freed if his people were not freed also.
Margaret Thatcher still denounced him as a “terrorist” but history was sweeping such reactionary sentiment aside. In 1988, the Anti-Apartheid Movement organised a great “Free Mandela” concert that filled Wembley stadium to bursting. Steve Wonder flew in. George Michael, Sting, Dire Straits, Eurythmics and a host of other stars defied rightwing Tory backbenchers trying to pull the plug on BBC2’s live broadcast as more than 600 million watched worldwide.
Finally, the regime had to treat with him, first by tentative overtures in prison, then by open negotiation. His oppressors had to seek Mandela’s help to save the country descending into chaos and civil war.
And he had long prepared for that opportunity, was always convinced it would come one day. Long years in prison turned him from burly, pushy freedom fighter into wise, almost saintly, statesman, able to heal a bitterly divided people.
I found myself alone with him in Johannesburg on the eve of his election as president in April 1994. Aged 76, he was tranquillity personified. “Peter, I suppose I should be jumping for joy. But I just feel a stillness. There is so much responsibility, so much to do.”
That humility, selflessness and absence of ego endeared him to everyone. Rarely for a celebrity he remained a people’s person, with time to chat to a hotel waiter or cleaner even as he kept a president or prime minister waiting.
The icon of all international icons – one of the very greatest figures of the 20th century – Mandela found world leaders of all political shades queuing up for photo-calls; when he addressed both Houses of Parliament, I spotted Mrs Thatcher scurrying down the aisle to get a front row seat. Tory MPs who as students in the early 1980s sported “Hang Mandela” badges were there too.
Courteous to all, whether they had backed his struggle or not, he had a soft spot for English ladies, especially the Queen. He was determinedly his own man, transcending political silos. Despite evident disapproval – including from his great admirer Bill Clinton – he insisted on visiting and thanking those leaders and countries that had backed the struggle during the cold war, notably Fidel Castro’s Cuba and Russia, when the governments of Britain, the US and the old European countries, were shamefully his opponents. He also defended the partnership between the ANC and the Communist party of South Africa.
But Mandela was never dogmatically ideological. His ANC generation was steeped in a moral and constitutional parliamentary tradition, brilliantly described in The Founders, Andre Odendaal’s recent book on the roots the ANC. His socialist instincts combined with liberal ones, his old-fashioned manners and family values the product of his Methodist missionary schooling and African chiefdom roots. His commitment to civil liberties was absolute – to the point where he had to instruct his deputy president, Thabo Mbeki, not to suppress a 1998 Truth and Reconciliation Committee report critical of the ANC.
Sadly, his successors have been unable to live up to Mandela’s high standards: first Mbeki’s denial of HIV-Aids and pusillanimous courting of Robert Mugabe, then dismaying corruption among local, provincial and national ANC politicians under Jacob Zuma.
Mandela openly defied Mbeki over HIV-Aids and hated Mugabe’s callous despotism and betrayal of the Zimbabwean freedom struggle. Corruption offended his most basic values, as his close Robben Island comrade Ahmed Kathrada recently told me.
Yet Mandela’s heart still beats within the ANC and the question is whether his inheritance can be rediscovered by a new generation. Upon that will turn South Africa’s future. And, as the African continent awakes to become the fast-growing part of the world, maybe its future too.
Madiba never forgot those hundreds of thousands of activists who rallied to the Anti-Apartheid Movement. “Except for all of you, I might not be standing here, a free man today, and our people would not be free,” he always told us.
Not only the AAM’s indefatigable executive secretaries, first Ethel de Keyser and then Mike Terry, but also the ordinary citizens who did their bit by boycotting South African oranges, wine and produce, should be proud.