Nelson Mandela - a tribute from Fabian

Nelson Mandela

Photograph from Wikipedia Creative Commons Attribution 2 South Africa The Good News /

Like so many people all over the world, I was filled with sadness at the death, announced last night, of Nelson Mandela.

My own political awareness started with the fight against the wicked Apartheid system in South Africa which I first became aware of in the early 1970s. My Grandmother had lived in Cape Town for a good part of her early life and remained uncritical of the appalling dominant white regime which had introduced the so-called system of 'Separate Development'. I had many arguments with her as a teenager and young man.

As Chair of Leeds City Council's Race Equality Committee from 1988 to 1994 I was involved with the Local Authorities Against Apartheid Steering Committee which tried to ensure that Local Government in the UK actively boycotted any South African products and campaigned for the release of Nelson Mandela and for majority rule in South Africa. Joining the Labour Party in 1979 was partly as a result of my commitment to the Anti-Apartheid Movement and my close friend, Paul Blomfield's deep involvement in it. Paul is now the Labour MP for Sheffield Central but in 1976 when I collected him from Heathrow Airport after his trip to Soweto on behalf of the NUS following the massacre there, we stayed up all night as I heard Paul's extraordinary account of his amazing trip. That only hardened my own commitment to the struggle against Apartheid.

In 1992, shortly after his release from 27 years of imprisonment, Nelson Mandela came to Glasgow to be awarded the Freedom of the City on behalf of Local Authorities Against Apartheid. I was invited to join other city representatives on the stage sitting behind Mandela during the concert in his honour at Glasgow's Royal Concert Hall. You could see his thin frame inside the loose suit that he wore - that was before his trade mark African shirts for which he became so famous. After the concert we all had the chance to meet him and give greetings from our respective Councils.

In April 2001, Leeds was the only city outside London which Mandela visited on his trip to the UK that year. We asked him to formally open our new Millenium Square after he was awarded Freedom of the City of Leeds in a ceremony in the Civic Hall led by then Council Leader Brian Walker who had secured the visit. Mandela then announced to the cheering crowds outside in the Square that he was truly proud to be in "… the great city of Liverpool", before being reminded that he was in fact in Leeds. That only brought more cheering from the huge number of Leeds citizens who had gathered to see the great man.

To celebrate ten years of democracy and majority rule in South Africa, the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee went to South Africa in early 2004. It was my first visit and as I stood on Table Mountain overlooking Cape Town I recalled my Grandmother's deep love of the place and could see why she was so entranced by its majesty. We met Mangosuthu Buthelezi, then Home Affairs Minister in the Government, before taking the short boat ride from Cape Town across Table Bay to Robben Island, where Mandela was imprisoned for eighteen years of his twenty seven years of incarceration. We were taken to see his cell where our guide - a former fellow prisoner - told us that for all that time the prison guards had forced Mandela to sleep on his bed roll against the shortest wall in the cell, despite the fact that he was a tall man and could not stretch out fully so had to sleep curled up. It was a minor bit of cruelty in an evil system.

The island is now a UNESCO World Heritage site and whilst we were there we were shown the quarry where he and the other prisoners had to work every day. Our guide explained that the years of work in a dusty environment like this meant that Mandela's tear ducts had become blocked which is why he could never cry and his eyes were always dry. We were told that the ANC prisoners were allowed just one political science book from Cape Town Library each week, but because they were determined to make the prison into a university, inmates stayed up all night working in shifts to copy out the precious book on hard toilet paper - which was all they had to write on - so that a whole political science library was created from toilet paper books. Mandela was the inspiration and it was he who persuaded some of the younger, angry ANC political prisoners that their anger should be turned into learning because one day they would run the country. He also taught them not to give in to bitterness but to forgive their captors for what they had done to the Black African people. The idea of the Rainbow Nation was born in Robben Island.

Fabian signs the book of condolance for Nelson Mandela at the Reginald Centre on Saturday 7th December 2013

Nelson Mandela touched so many lives because he showed that out of evil and cruelty can come forgiveness and love. He taught us the real meaning of humanity and my hope is that this is what will live on long after his death.

Leeds, 6th December 2013.