I was 19 and one of my lecturers asked me if I would like to go to South Africa and work on a Gold Mine for the summer. It seemed like a good idea. I knew little of the country and less about the regime which operated there. Although I had a vague idea that Apartheid was a bad thing and had decided not to favour Barclays Bank (who were active in South Africa) with my student grant, as the posters in the Union urged me to “Boycott Barclays”. Politically uninterested and chronically naïve about summed me up.
The three months I spent in South Africa completely changed my view of the world. At first I lapped up the excuses trotted out by the white guys I mixed with and when I got home I trotted them out in turn to those who asked what I thought of the regime. Then my friend Franz told me about the treatment he had received at the hands of the local police on his return to his native Namibia and I felt such a fool. I had failed to look and so failed to see both sides. A mistake I have tried to avoid ever since.
So when the job offers came in from South Africa as I finished university I turned them down. I started to take an interest in the politics of southern Africa and became aware that Nelson Mandela embodied the struggle against Apartheid. Songs of protest and sadness, anger and dissent found their way onto the tapes I played on my Walkman: Johnny Clegg and Savuka, Miriam Makeba, Peter Gabriel’s “Biko” and later Labi Siffre’s “So Strong”.
All the things I did seemed feeble in the face of the South African government’s refusal to budge. So what if I didn’t eat Cape apples or Outspan oranges, derided sportsmen and bands who broke the cultural boycott as it gathered impetus, wrote letters for Amnesty, went to the concerts supporting the anti-apartheid and human rights causes and ponced about in “Free Nelson Mandela” tee-shirts (I think my daughter probably has my ubiquitous Rock Against Racism badge now). At the time it all seemed so impotent.
Could I have been more short sighted? Unlikely, because the South African government changed and eventually came to realise what the rest of the world had already concluded: Apartheid was not just untenable but wrong. Furthermore, they twigged that they could not keep Nelson Mandela in captivity any longer.
Nelson Mandela is such a fixture in all our minds nowadays it is difficult to remember that we didn’t even know who we were looking for when he took his long walk to freedom twenty years ago. He was just the tall bloke next to Winnie Mandela. Everyone waited to see what would happen next. Would there be a bloodbath? What followed demonstrated that the strongest form of leadership is by example as Nelson Mandela showed his country and the world a strength of character that most of us can only dream of possessing. He repaid in moments the faith which we had placed in him during the years of campaigning and has continued to prove himself a true statesman ever since.
I am uncomfortable with heroes. But if I had to plump for one well-known human being on this planet who has the qualities I most admire, it would be Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela – the man who embodies Amandla Awethu – Power to the People.
by John Walker (find him on Twitter – @keirhardiescap)