No Cuddly Toy: Nelson Mandela Remembered

David Stubbs looks at the life of Nelson Mandela, and argues that he should remembered as one of the greatest radicals of the twentieth century

I vividly recall the day Nelson Mandela walked free from Victor Verster prison in February of 1990. It was a hugely gratifying occasion, welcomed by a parade of thousands and a global TV audience of millions and had been in the pipeline of political inevitability for months. Far more stunning, if of less world import, was the news that received second billing on the bulletins – that the night before, world heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson had been defeated by the unfancied James "Buster" Douglas for the first time in his career. The coincidence felt symbolic. Tyson was a poor representative of African-Americans, a sad contrast to Muhammad Ali in the 1960s and 1970s but he had felt unbeatable – with his knockout it felt was as if some of the brutal, raging, might-is-right inevitability of the 1980s had been overturned, overnight. Just a few weeks earlier, the Berlin Wall had collapsed, unexpectedly scotching the supposed permanence of the Cold War. Nine months later, Margaret Thatcher’s seemingly interminable occupation of 10 Downing Street came to a similarly abrupt halt. The 1990s could not have announced themselves in more startling terms. Shortly after this, Francis Fukuyama published The End Of History. It felt apt. At the turn of the decade, the walls of history were collapsing about our ears and the world was experiencing the novelty of geopolitical good news.

Mandela would go on to become a living symbol of reconciliation, among the most recognised faces on the planet. However, in February 1990, barely anyone knew what he looked like in old age. No images of him during his incarceration from 1962 onwards were made available – until, just a few weeks prior to his release, a sketch of him that appeared in the South African Weekly Mail. It was illegal even to own a photograph during the Apartheid years. And so, amid the various conflicting emotions among the waiting crowds on that sweltering day on the Grand Parade in Cape Town – elation and anticipation, anxiety and anger at the delay in his appearance – was sheer curiosity. The unknown face of a 71-year-old man, the face of the future, was imminent.

As the tributes to Mandela pour in from all sides and all usual suspects, with all parties anxious to place themselves in the unimpeachably, universally acclaimed, grand old liberator of South Africa, those of a certain age cast their minds back to the 1980s. In the spiteful churlishness of those mean-spirited, Thatcher-ridden years, the campaign to free Nelson Mandela felt as worthy but remotely left-field a prospect as unilateral nuclear disarmament or a united Ireland. At Oxford University, in the early 80s, I recall the Hang Nelson Mandela leaflets produced by the local branch of the Federation of Conservative Students being stuffed in student pigeonholes. (Cameron would still have been in his Etonian shorts at this stage). Mandela had been incarcerated since November 1962, – however, his name did not crop up in the Houses Of Parliament until 1983, such was the British political establishment’s indifference to his fate. This was the year by which the late Bob Marley had declared Africa Must Be Free. This was also the year that Jerry Dammers of The Specials discovered the anti-Apartheid cause, resulting in the anthem ‘Free Nelson Mandela’, released in 1984. By the mid-80s, the Ken Livingstone-led GLC had erected a bust of Mandela on the South Bank near Hungerford Bridge, visible every day to commuters to Charing Cross. It existed in a state of near-permanent defacement. In Only Fools And Horses, a series always alarmingly flippant in matters of race, Del Boy and Rodney lived in Nelson Mandela House in Peckham – as if to suggest the pro-Mandela cause was one thrust by council leftie do-gooders on ordinary white working class folk.

Mandela was as much reviled as revered, a polarising figure. Margaret Thatcher, naturally, placed herself squarely on the wrong side of history, decrying Mandela and the African National Congress as "terrorists" and, as late as 1987 declared, "Anyone who thinks it is going to run the government in South Africa is living in cloud-cuckoo land". (Although renowned for shaking hands with his enemies, including Betsy Verwoerd, widow of apartheid’s founder, Mandela declined a meeting with Thatcher in 1990. In the event that there’s an afterlife, it’s unlikely they’ll be meeting there, either.) The Daily Mail, who today have fallen over themselves to hail an "inspirational leader" and "adored statesman" who "won South Africans their freedom" was far more concerned with circumventing the sporting boycott of South Africa by fast-tracking white distance runner Zola Budd to a UK passport, accusing their anti-apartheid detractors of "sneering at success".

By the late 1980s, however, domestic and international pressure signalled the impending and agonisingly overdue doom of the Apartheid system and in 1988 a Happy Birthday concert was organised for the still-imprisoned Mandela at Wembley, an affair that looked to capture on a large scale some of the mood of Global Superstar Concern that lingered in the wake of Live Aid. Simple Minds, at their commercial height but artistic nadir released the worthy but grey paint-drinkingly dull ‘Mandela Day’ and were among the headliners – as were Dire Straits, whose temporary line-up included Eric Clapton, who in the mid-70s had disgraced himself with his onstage, racist, pro-Enoch Powell ranting. His appearance perhaps represented a discreet laundering of his reputation – it was certainly a sign of slowly shifting attitudes. The event was laudable, and provoked the ire of a number of Tories, who protested the BBC’s coverage of the concert, including the right wing MP John Carlisle MP. (Eric Forth, the Conservatives’ minister for consumer affairs, meanwhile, was on record as stating that he regretted Mandela had not been hanged). However, the event seemed somehow designed to both raise and stifle consciousness at the same time. Whitney Houston performed, but against a black backdrop rather than an image of Mandela, at the behest of Coca-Cola, for whom she was doing a series of adverts at the time – the organisers claimed that this had been due to technical difficulties. Whoopi Goldberg, meanwhile, also appearing, stated that she had been ordered not to say anything "political".

The qualms of corporations and politicians about Mandela melted away almost the moment he was released. Apartheid was clearly doomed, elections were in the offing and in his speeches and actions, Mandela revealed not only his immense charm but his magisterial moral authority, as well as signalling the determination, borne out of staggering reserves of diplomatic grace, that South Africa’s transition into a post-Apartheid era would be a managed, rather than a bloody or vengeful one. The euphoria he generated could result in some pancreas-curdling exclamations – hosting another Wembley event in his honour in 1990, Red-specced Ben Elton, in one of his links said, "The show must go on – as indeed does the struggle." But this was forgivable.

Mandela was elected to office in 1994 and, while, he had some success in alleviating the condition of the poor black population, was in no position to make serious inroads, the economic equalities of Apartheid during his Presidency, while he was criticised also for not taking seriously enough the HIV/AIDS epidemic ravaging the country. Perhaps the greatest aspects of his Presidency were the entering and leaving of it. That he had indeed secured the right of his people to vote was in itself an enormous triumph, won through his own, personal sacrifice and brilliantly effective political engagement with his foes. TV pictures of South Africans waiting cheerfully for hours to cast their vote at ballot boxes for the first time in their lives remain a modern-day reminder of how democracy is not to be taken for granted and a reproach against apathetic electorates or those who decry voting as a waste of time. After a single term, he left office, a contrast to leaders in other African countries, the wretched Robert Mugabe, for example, who could not give up power and turned too easily from liberators into dictators. Mandela broke that cycle, in so doing withstanding pressures incomprehensible to onlooking Western liberals.

Some criticised Mandela for his too-easy ubiquity as he ascended to the status of Father of the Nation, above the fray of politics, photographed smiling too easily with world leaders who he must have known were only posing with him out of a new expediency, who wouldn’t have lifted a finger to help him when he most needed it. He become an apparently willing human touchstone for awestruck celebrities, too – many felt his famous encounter with The Spice Girls was cheapening, although in fairness, the old man seemed to thoroughly enjoy their irreverent attentions, probably a good deal more than having to be bored for the umpteenth time by Living Saint-magnet Bono, windily explaining him why he was such an inspiration to mankind.

In his quest for universal reconciliation, there is a danger that Mandela was in danger of become a trite symbol of bleeding-heart obvious virtues, lauded even by the fatuous likes of Louise Mensch, who claimed in a tweet following his death that he was "neither left nor right". In The Office Christmas Special, there’s a moment when David Brent, introducing his dog Nelson, explains that he named it after the "great leader who they locked up just because he was black." Whereupon someone points out to him that he was jailed for his activities as commander-in-chief of the militia wing, for sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow the government. This is the sort of thing the right used gleefully to seize upon but is now an embarrassment to them, as it is to soft liberal apoliticos, who have adopted him as their Inspirational Cuddly Toy. The truth is, he was not "above" politics, even if that is where he eventually found himself. His early political thought was Marxist in nature, and he had affiliations with the South African Communist Party, though ultimately he was too large a player on the political stage to toe party lines. He advocated bombing, not out of any love for violence, he said, but because he felt it was strategically correct at the time. His pacifist approach to white leaders like FW De Klerk was similarly not borne out of any airy, peace-and-love-to-all-men sensibility but was strategically correct, too – he achieved his ends, preserving peace and untold lives in the process. He might also have had the satisfaction hinted at in the bible in treating his enemies with kindness – that in so doing, you heap hot coals on their heads. Certainly, in his innate and manifest moral strength, he revealed his captors as pitiful, Lilliputian inferiors, shrank to nothing any deluded moral authority advocates of Apartheid might have imagined they possessed.

It’s galling to some to see the establishment likes of Cameron, Prince Charles, etc, praise Mandela even as the injustices and privileges they represent remain intact. However, the very fact that they do so is an indication of ground successfully ceded. Conversely, however, Mandela students should look to his core, radical message, one which he explicitly stated in the context of the Palestinians. He accused Israel of "gross racial discrimination", and of depriving millions of Palestinians of their liberty and property. These are not the words of a man given himself to bland, inoffensive platitudes of the sort currently with which he is currently being showered. They, are, however, the words of a man who, in essence, believed that until we are all free, none of us are. They are fighting words, from a man who, in the boxing ring and on the world stage, fought the good fight. "The struggle is my life", he said. Ben Elton was clumsily right. It’s the struggle to which future Mandela students should attend. The ending of his life isn’t too great cause for sadness – this wasn’t so much a life cut short as one unmercifully prolonged, perhaps. Better to be grateful that the nearest we have to a latter-day saint walked among us in our lifetimes.

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