‘Forgive,’ urged Nelson Mandela after the battle against apartheid triumphed, ‘but never forget’.
He might have had in mind the British Conservative Party.
In very recent times its leaders have joined the rest of the world in seeing Mandela him as an almost saintly figure. But that was most emphatically not the Party’s history, as David Cameron himself acknowledged when, in his pre-election rebranding phase, he publicly apologised to Nelson Mandela in 2009 for Tory complicity in sustaining apartheid.
It went back a long way. After his African National Congress was banned and Mandela was forced underground, he travelled to London in 1962 seeking support. But Tory Cabinet Ministers refused to meet him and the ANC was shunned by the Foreign Office. Instead Mandela was welcomed by the Labour and Liberal leaders Hugh Gaitskell and Jo Grimond.
After a nationwide campaign of direct action in 1969-70 by the Stop the Seventy Tour campaign of which I was chairman, mounting pressure on cricket bosses forced the previously unthinkable: they cancelled the 1970 white South African cricket tour to Britain at the direct request of the Labour Government, but shrilly denounced by Tory leaders.
Soon white South Africa was propelled into sporting isolation – banned from competing internationally in rugby, cricket, football, the Olympics and all sports. It was a ban ecstatically welcomed by Mandela – who upon his release said it was decisive – but vigorously opposed by Tories.
When the Tories won the 1970 election they reversed Labour’s limited ban on selling arms to the apartheid state. Then back in opposition in 1974, Tory Leader Ted Heath welcomed the British Lions rugby tour to South Africa in direct breach of the UN sports boycott of whites-only South African teams. By contrast Labour’s Africa Minister Joan Lestor refused normal British embassy receptions and facilities for the Lions.
Consistently, as the struggle against apartheid escalated through the 1980s, Tory MPs aligned themselves with apartheid, enjoying generous travel and hospitality, one becoming known as the ‘Member for Pretoria’. One, Gerald Howarth, was even involved in a private prosecution against me for conspiracy to stop the tours, nearly having me jailed after a month-long Old Bailey trial in 1972. Conservative Students wore ‘Hang Nelson Mandela’ badges and Margaret Thatcher denounced him as ‘a terrorist’ just a few years before he walked to freedom from prison.
When in 1988 the Anti-Apartheid Movement organised a great ‘Free Mandela’ concert which filled Wembley stadium to bursting, Steve Wonder flew in. George Michael, Sting, Dire Straits, Eurythmics and a host of other stars performed. They defied Tory backbenchers who tried right up to transmission to pull the plug on BBC2’s live broadcast as over 600 million watched worldwide.
Labour trade union leaders like Ron Todd, Rodney Bickerstaffe and Jimmy Knapp gave leadership and solidarity. So did Labour MPs like Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock, Joan Lestor, Richard Caborn and Bob Hughes.
I record all this, not out of spite at a time of genuinely widespread grief over the passing of perhaps the greatest leader of the last half century, but simply because we should understand our history – not least to learn for the future.