Tribute to Nelson Mandela

Westminster Abbey

Nelson Mandela would have been humbled by this occasion, perhaps wistfully recalling with his wonderful smile, that British Christian missionaries at his primary school decreed his first name. Who knows, maybe they were privy to the translation of his birth name: Rolihlahla – or ‘looking for trouble’?

The herd boy turned freedom fighter, the prisoner turned president, never forgot his British connection. Indeed he revered it – even during those long decades in that cold cell on Robben Island when the anti-apartheid struggle was so bitter; facing ruthless, brutal repression at home, and when there was mostly a majority in the House of Commons against him and his African National Congress.

Yet tens of thousands of British citizens supported his fight for freedom: those courageous bishops, Trevor Huddleston, Ambrose Reeves and David Sheppard who led both from the pulpit and the street; grannies who boycotted South African oranges; students who forced Barclays Bank to withdraw from South Africa; trade unionists who gave solidarity; protesters who disrupted sports tours by apartheid-selected teams; and a few stalwart MPs like Neil Kinnock, Richard Caborn, Bob Hughes and David Steel.

Nelson Mandela never missed an opportunity to thank them all. Although his generosity to former opponents was legendary, he never forgot who was on his side and who wasn’t. Sadly, great causes, from slavery abolitionists, to suffragettes, to anti-apartheid campaigners, are invariably unpopular at the very time they most need support – only to be glorified, even sanctified, once they have triumphed.

Not only his renowned wisdom, tolerance and steely leadership, but Nelson Mandela’s endearing personality made him perhaps the international icon of our era – with, at least to those who had the privilege of knowing him, an impish, mischievous wit. Apologising for not being able to attend our wedding in 2003, he asked: ‘but perhaps I can come the next time?’

At Cardiff Castle in 1998 on a burning hot day, he kept a long line of VIPs waiting as he spotted a group of primary school children. He stopped. The VIPs sweltered, the children bemused. Then he proceeded to conduct the by now delighted youngsters to an impromptu ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ – doubtless taught him by those Christian Missionaries.

‘The thing we missed most of all on Robben Island’, he once told me, ‘was the magical, innocent sound of children at play.’
Including his own of course.

There will never be another like Nelson Mandela – truly an inspiration to us all, and for evermore.