Nelson Mandela, a man whose life’s journey took him from activist to prisoner to President to global icon, has passed away. While it has been expected perhaps for some time, it does not make it any less sad. His passing led me to reflect on the impact of the man, not just in terms of politics but on global society and opinions.
I was sixteen, with the usual cares of a sixteen-year old boy, with some interest in history and politics but limited. Apartheid was a word that was known and I remember happily signing petitions against it, I also remember Barclays being known as the fascist bank due to investments in South Africa. There was also a campaign of pressure upon British PM Margaret Thatcher to push for a global campaign against the white supremacist regime. But these mostly failed to have impact, not just on the regime but also cognitively on many people.
It struck me how the name of Mandela probably entered the wider consciousness in Britain due to Jerry Dammers and his band The Specials AKA. The Two Tone scene had long shown that cultural fusion worked, and it had always had a political edge. Looking back I wonder how many children of largely conservative families, often those who would enjoy the racist jokes prevailing in the working men’s clubs, variety shows and on television of the time, who wouldn’t want their daughter to ‘marry one’, suddenly found themselves singing this catchy little song about a man with an exotic name. I do remember reading the story of Nelson Mandela in a piece that explained the song to the masses in a popular music magazine. Suddenly apartheid had a human face, one deserving of interest, of support, and the campaign had a cracking theme tune.
His release six years later was part of the new dawning of democracy, of freedom. The Berlin Wall had fallen, the Eastern European dictatorships that ruled in the name of communism had collapsed, and Nelson Mandela walked free from 27 years of imprisonment. That could have been the end of a story but it wasn’t. He might also, perhaps justifiably, have left prison intent on revenge. But he showed the world a very important lesson. It is not revenge but reconciliation that rebuilds a society; his path to power was not on the back of civil war but a desire for civil society.
The long road to freedom was indeed long but the journey he embarked upon is not over. South Africa has come a long way from the days of Apartheid but there are still deep social and economic divisions. Equally, while a man of colour might reside in the White House, there remains currents of racism across the globe. Nelson Mandela’s rightful legacy should be the eradication of inequalities based on colour, race or any other irrational and illogical mechanism that allows one group to be superior over another. While he has the absolute right to rest in peace those that follow the wisdom of his words and deeds need to continue his journey, he drew the map let us all follow.