Tribute to Nelson Mandela

I thank the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition for their perhaps over-generous remarks about my role. Let me simply underline that there were many tens of thousands of activists in the Anti-Apartheid Movement who deserve to be acknowledged as well.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for your personal leadership in ensuring that this tribute debate is such a special event, as you said, for such a special person. I note that you are wearing the South African tie on this occasion. I specifically thank you—this is very important—for proposing, along with the Lord Speaker, Thursday afternoon’s Westminster Hall event for civil society including, importantly, veteran activists of the Anti-Apartheid Movement who worked so tirelessly over many tough and bitter decades both for Nelson Mandela’s release and for the sanctions against apartheid that he wanted and that ultimately triggered his freedom.

I have never really been into heroes but Nelson Mandela was mine from when I was a young boy in Pretoria and unique among my school friends and relatives in having parents who welcomed everybody to their house regardless of colour—activists in the anti-apartheid struggle. I remember that one fellow activist, Elliot Mngadi, remarked, “This is the first time I’ve ever come through the front door of a white man’s house.” Blacks acting as servants or gardeners might be allowed in the back door occasionally.

My mother, Adelaine, was often alone in the whites-only section of the public gallery at Nelson Mandela’s 1962 trial in Pretoria and when he entered the dock, he would always acknowledge her with a clenched fist, which she would return. His beautiful wife Winnie attended the trial each day, often magnificent in tribal dress. Once, when my tiny younger sisters went with my mother during a school holiday, Winnie bent down and kissed the two little blonde girls to the evident horror of the onlooking white policemen. A black woman kissing two little white children disgusted them.

Forty years later, I was escorting Nelson Mandela to speak at the Labour party annual conference in Brighton, but before that he had an appointment with the Prime Minister that had been very carefully scheduled. We were going down in the lift in the hotel and he said, “How’s the family?” I mentioned that my mother had broken her leg and was in hospital. “Ah,” he said, “I must phone her.” The Prime Minister was kept waiting while Nelson Mandela chatted to porters and cleaners and waitresses and waiters, all lined up as the minutes ticked by. I desperately tried directory inquiries to get her phone number, eventually got the ward and was put through. I said to her, “There’s a very special person who would like to speak to you,” and I handed the phone to him. He said, “This is Mandela from South Africa. Do you know who I am?”

Having been sentenced to five years on Robben Island after the Pretoria trial that my mother attended, Mandela was then brought back more than a year later, as has been mentioned, to be Accused No. 1 in the Rivonia trial, when, facing the death penalty and against the strong advice of his lawyer, he famously said:

“During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

I remember reading those powerful words aged 14, trying to take in their full significance, and aware they were a great inspiration to my parents and all those involved in the anti-apartheid struggle, as Nelson Mandela faced the death penalty. In fact, after worldwide pleas for clemency, he was sentenced to life imprisonment, and in July 1964, Mandela returned to Robben Island, not to be seen or heard in public again for nearly 26 years.

Two years later, in 1966, after my parents had been jailed, declared banned persons and deprived of earning a living, our family sailed past Robben Island and into exile here in Britain, and we will always be grateful for the welcome that we were given in this country. I remember looking out over the Cape rollers and imagining how Mandela and his comrades were surviving in that cold bleak cell. As an African, he was permitted 5 oz of meat daily, whereas coloureds were allowed 6 oz; he was permitted ½ oz of fat, and coloureds 1 oz: the evil precision of apartheid penetrated every nook and cranny of life, banning inter-racial sex as well as segregating park benches, sport, jobs, schools, hospitals, and much, much more. The apartheid state had hoped that, out of sight on the former leper colony of Robben Island, with its freezing cold waters that had devoured all escapees, Mandela would be out of mind, but the longer he was imprisoned, the bigger a global leader he became.

In July 1988, his 70th birthday became a global celebration, with a pulsating. “Free Mandela” anti-apartheid rock concert attended by 100,000 people at Wembley stadium and watched on live television by 600 million worldwide, despite—I say for the record, not out of any recrimination—some Conservative Members pressing the BBC to pull the plug on its coverage. Then, almost miraculously, something occurred that we had dreamed of, but deep down doubted would ever, ever happen—on that historic day in February 1990 Mandela walked out of prison to freedom, providing an image for ever imprinted on me and on millions, perhaps even billions, across the world. I say “almost miraculously” because history gets compressed and rewritten over time, and we take change for granted.

The reality was very different. Nelson Mandela’s struggle for freedom, and that of his African National Congress, was long and bitter, taking nearly 100 years from the days under British colonial rule when the roots of apartheid were established. Under Britain in 1900, 50 years before apartheid was formally institutionalised in South Africa, most of its features were already in place in the bustling gold-rush city of Johannesburg. By then, Africans were prevented from walking on the pavements—they had to walk on the streets—they had to carry “passes” to work in the city, they could not use buses and trains designated for whites, they were dreadfully exploited in the mines, and they had no political rights.

We all say in Britain that we were against apartheid, and doubtless we were, but some did things about it—others did not. The anti-apartheid struggle was for most of its life engaged in a big fight, here in Britain too. The executive secretaries of the Anti-Apartheid Movement—first, Ethel de Keyser, then Mike Terry—were indefatigable. Its chairman, Lord Bob Hughes, and treasurer, Richard Caborn—former Members of Parliament—were real stalwarts, along with Neil Kinnock and Glenys as well. Protests to stop whites-only Springbok tours provoked fierce anger. I remember them well: “Hain the pain”, as I recall. Some people might still feel that. Yet, as Nelson Mandela confirmed to me, the Springboks’ sporting isolation was a key factor in making whites realise that they had to change, so that today that wonderful black rugby star Bryan Habana can be a Springbok, whereas his predecessors under apartheid at the time that we were demonstrating never could.

Demands for trade and economic sanctions were also resisted, yet their partial implementation, regrettably not by London, but by Washington, eventually helped to propel the white business community in the late 1980s to demand change from the very same apartheid Government from whom they had so long benefited.

Mr Speaker, forgive me if, for a brief moment, I strike what I hope will not be seen as too discordant a note on this occasion, which sees the House at its very best, coming together to salute the great man. Were it not for interventions in the media in recent days, I would have let pass correcting the historical record. I give credit especially to you, Mr Speaker, for volunteering most graciously that you were on the wrong side of the anti-apartheid struggle as a young Conservative. I give credit to the Prime Minister for apologising for his party’s record of what I have to describe as craven indulgence towards apartheid’s rulers. And if Nelson Mandela can forgive his oppressors without forgetting their crimes, who am I not to do the same for our opponents in the long decades of the anti-apartheid struggle?

But it really does stick in the craw when Lord Tebbit, Charles Moore and others similar tried over recent days to claim that their complicity with apartheid—that is what I think it was—somehow brought about its end. To my utter incredulity, Lord Tebbit even told BBC World in a debate with me that they had brought about Mandela’s freedom. I know for a fact that Nelson Mandela did not think so. At every possible opportunity he went out of his way to thank anti-apartheid activists across the world for freeing him and his people.

It is therefore especially welcome that Nelson Mandela always retained an almost touching faith in British parliamentary democracy. Even though—I disagree with the interpretation by the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind)—over most of his life he was a believer in non-violent legal peaceful change. by force of circumstance—the suppression of his African National Congress’s non-violent campaign for over 60 years—he had to become a freedom fighter and to lead an underground campaign of guerrilla activity similar to the French resistance against the Nazis. Even when the majority in this Parliament, and the Government of the day, were not on his side, he still cherished our parliamentary democracy. I mention this because Mandela’s old foes became his new friends, his former adversaries his admirers. That was part, as others have said, of his greatness.

But that was Mandela the political leader. There was, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) remarked in his marvellous speech, another equally engaging side to his greatness. He had an infectious capacity for mischief. In London a few weeks after our marriage in 2003, I introduced my wife Elizabeth to him. “Is this your girlfriend?” he asked. When I replied: “No, she’s my wife”, he chuckled, “So she caught you then?” When Elizabeth, who can be somewhat feisty at times, exclaimed indignantly that she had taken a lot of persuading, he laughed, “That’s what they all say, Peter, but they trap you in the end!” By then she realised that he was teasing her and we all ended up laughing together. He had apologised earlier for not coming to our wedding, instead sending a message, which contained these impish words to us newly-weds: “But perhaps I will be able to come next time!”

It was not just his towering moral stature, his courage and capacity to inspire, that endeared Nelson Mandela to so many. Despite being one of the world’s most prominent statesmen—perhaps the most revered—he retained his extraordinary humanity. When he was with you, you had all his attention. When he greeted you, his eyes never wandered, even though you were surrounded by far more important people. Whether you were a mere child, a hotel porter, a cleaner, a waiter or a junior staff member, he was interested in you. And he never forgot a friend.

On the same occasion when Elizabeth met him in 2003, my parents were also present, enjoying a reunion. The conversation somehow turned to my ministerial driver, whom Mandela promptly summoned. “I was once a driver, too,” he told him as they shook hands, referring to the time in 1961-62 when he was on the run and went underground, dubbed the “Black Pimpernel”, often moving about the country dressed as a chauffeur, in order to invite no attention, with cap and uniform and his white “master” in the back, as was stereotypical in those days and so a good form of disguise.

An ordinariness combined with extraordinariness was not Mandela’s sole uniqueness. His capacity for forgiveness is what made him the absolutely critical figure, first during secret negotiations in the late 1980s from prison with the Afrikaner nationalist Government and then after his release, both in the transition and in healing a bitterly divided nation.

That brings me to his status. Gandhi, Kennedy and Churchill are all iconic figures, the last for his inspirational wartime leadership and the first two more for having been assassinated. Yet today ask almost anybody anywhere which global statesman they admire most, and “Nelson Mandela” will as likely as not be the answer. Other world figures are usually famous within their own professional disciplines, sections of society, interest groups or age groups. Many attract hostility, cynicism or plain indifference. Nelson Mandela’s unique achievement was to command fame, admiration and affection from virtually everyone, everywhere in the world.

So if, as I believe, he is more iconic than anybody else, why? His life story of sacrifice, courage, endurance and suffering in the great and noble cause of liberty, democracy and justice places him among a very select few: the Tolpuddle martyrs, Chartists, suffragettes, Gandhi himself, anti-colonial African leaders, Che Guevara, Lech Walesa, Solzhenitsyn and Aung San Suu Kyi, to name just some. But Mandela towers above them all in the popular imagination, perhaps in part because he was the first such figure to be projected to the world’s peoples through the powerful modern media of global television and the internet. He was quite simply far better known than any comparable figure.

Equally, however—this is the lesson I draw—he survived, and indeed prospered, even under the fierce media spotlight of 24-hour news, over-hype and spin. Uniquely, he remained untarnished and undiminished by that modern media beast’s unrivalled capacity for building up then knocking down, leaving him serenely above all its insatiable prurience and obsession for triviality and instant novelty. Where most political careers end in failure or opprobrium, Nelson Mandela’s continued to soar long after he stepped down as President.

Mandela’s greatness, his stature, derived not just from an extraordinary biography that dwarfs the rest of humankind; it came from the warm glow of humanity that he radiated, his common touch, humbleness, self-deprecation, humour and dignity. Prison could have embittered, adulation could have gone to his head and egotism could have triumphed. The clutching of the crowd and the intrusive pressures of the modern political age could have seen him retreat behind the barriers that most leaders and celebrities today erect around themselves, not necessarily through any fault of their own, but in part to retain some personal space, but the consequence of which all too often becomes either aloofness or insincerity and its companion, cynicism. But none of that happened to him. Throughout everything, Nelson Mandela remained his own man, neither seduced by the trappings of office, nor deluded by the adulation of admirers, always friendly and approachable. That is why, for me, he was the icon of icons, and perhaps always will be.

President Bill Clinton, who has such a wonderful way with words, said:

“Every time Nelson Mandela walks into a room, we all feel a little bigger, we all want to stand up, we all want to cheer, because we’d like to be him on our best day”.

Sadly, Nelson Mandela will not be walking into our rooms ever again, but we can all still strive to be like him on our best days. For, as he said in one of his many memorable proverbs:

“What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others.”