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Memories of Mandela: uniquely inspiring, a good man responsible for great things

Posted on 6 December 2013 | 10:12am

Well, I suppose we have all had a long time to get used to the idea it might happen, but that does not minimise the sadness, nor the sense of loss, that he has finally gone. Both are reflections of the fact that Nelson Mandela was one of the small number of historical figures from our lifetime whose name will resonate through history for eternity. Many historical figures endure because they were forces of badness. He will do so because he was a force for such good. A good man responsible for great things.

He was uniquely inspiring, and so much a part of our lives and our politics that it is hard for my generation to imagine either without him. His name will live on, however, as a byword for values, courage, resilience, endurance, humanity, forgiveness, reconciliation, the politics of protest, the politics of hope.

Of the famous people and major political figures I have met, only three have caused, on first meeting, the physical sensation of a slightly faster heart rate and hair standing to attention on my neck. Two – Muhammad Ali and Diego Maradona – were from sport. Mandela was the sole political figure who had that effect. And yet he was someone who instinctively put everyone he met at ease. It is a great human being we are mourning, not just a great leader.

So some memories. When he was finally freed, he wanted to come to London fairly soon afterwards to thank the British people, particularly on the left, who had campaigned so hard for his release, and for the anti apartheid movement more generally.

I was at the Mirror and Labour MP Dick Caborn, a leading light in the anti apartheid movement, asked if I could get publisher Robert Maxwell to sponsor the planned tribute concert for Mandela. Maxwell said he would – though I am not sure he ever paid – and part of the deal was that Mandela would come to the Mirror for a meeting and a meal with the then owner.

Mandela was very gracious, lovely to everyone, and I was not alone in feeling I was in the presence of someone special. A picture from that meeting is one of the few pictures of my meetings with public figures that I have kept, and have on display in my office. Maxwell could not resist however giving him ‘advice’ about the art of negotiation, even pointing out that as Mandela had been locked up for so long, he would ‘need to learn’ from people like him, experienced as he was in dealings with Eastern European dictators.

To the embarrassment of everyone else in the room, he said ‘Nelson, one of the most important qualities a negotiator requires is patience.’ To which the saintly Mandela, perhaps reflecting on 27 years in prison, replied gently: ‘Bob, I think I know a thing or two about patience.’ My memory of him from the concert is of him ‘Dad dancing’ with rather more grace, style and rhythm than anyone else in the Royal Box.

I met him several times with Tony Blair, both in the UK and South Africa.I remember when he came to the EU Summit in Cardiff, though some of the big names of world diplomacy were there, he was very much the first among equals, his presence, charisma and grace of a scale and quality that others could only dream of, and admire.

I think it was when he came to Labour conference to thank the Party for the role it had played in the fight to free him that TB said Nelson uniquely managed to make every other politician feel they had something lacking. His preaching of forgiveness and reconciliation – though he might have smiled wryly at some of the tributes being paid by those on the right of politics, airbrushing their role (or lack of it) in the fight against apartheid – was all the more powerful for what he, his family and his people had endured.

There was another time, in an argument about Libya, when Mandela said something TB totally disagreed with, but he knew enough about the power of the Mandela legend to admit ‘the trouble with you, Nelson, is that you are such a saint you can come out with any old nonsense and nobody can challenge you.’ Mandela laughed, slapped his thigh, and nodded in agreement.

My overriding memory of his conference visit is of the staff wanting to have pictures taken with him, and his limitless patience. When we went to South Africa people were always asking me to take books for him to sign, and I remember on a visit to Pretoria asking him to sign one for Monica Prentice, who was one of the messengers in Downing St and one of the few black people working there. She adored Mandela. Of all those who asked me to take a book on that visit, I decided just to take her copy of Long Walk to Freedom, and after the meeting ended I asked if he would dedicate it to Monica. He was very slow and deliberate in his actions, had classically old-fashioned and neat handwriting. He took a while to get the top off the pen, open the book at the right page, and start to write.
He was half way through ‘to Monica’ when he looked up and said ‘hold on, it’s not THAT Monica is it?” And then the smile, and then the laugh.

I have done the tourist thing, visited the cell where he spent so many years, witnessed all over the country the hold he has on the culture, mindset and everyday lives of people. Their grief in South Africa will be almost unbearable, and the void unimaginable. The word legend is much overused. The truth is that perhaps the only genuine living legend we knew in our lifetime, has gone. The sadness all over the world today reflects that reality.

—– if you admire and are inspired by him, help continue the great work by giving to #ACTSA #Mandela #SA

Ps, I hope that in the millions of words the media will devote to Mandela in the coming days, some will go on explaining the role played by a number of Labour MPs in particular in the creation of the Anti Apartheid Movement, and its constant struggle in the face of often huge opposition. Neil Kinnock, Dick Caborn and Peter Hain were among them, and should feel a real pride in the role they played. But if there is one man whose role must never be forgotten it is Bob Hughes, a man who sums up that wonderful statement by Harry Truman that is is remarkable what a small group of people can achieve, provided nobody cares who gets the credit. Bob is one of those people.

  • Sam Holliday

    Brilliant piece Alastair. Captured the two elements that always shone through about him which I think few leaders possess – an ability to have gravitas and power while still maintaining humility and humanity. Thanks for sharing this.

  • Michele

    RIP Mr Mandela

    Lovely tribute from the very young girl interviewee smiling through her tears describing death as his deserved release from what his life had been in recent months and from the fabulously eloquent Beeb correspondent in conversation with Huw Thomas last evening. It sometimes seems that English when a 2nd language is used so much better (even in this case when it has been imposed down the centuries).

    • Ehtch

      Think the secret of the success of the English language is that it is more of an amalgamation of languages than others. Even Welsh supplies a few words, as per here,

      “Welsh” is a very different form from what it was 2000 years ago, pre-Roman, when it then became infused with Latin words. As like with Old English late first millennia is complete greek to English users today. The secret of Welsh, in it’s by the skin of it’s teeth survival, is the completely different form of grammar than English, so it was difficult for Welsh speakers over the ages to become proficient in it, especially in remote areas.

      Think “Welsh-type” language peoples in England, Wales and South of Scotland were the first in the World to speak a form of “Pidgin” English.

  • reaguns

    I tend to come on here and argue things from a right wing perspective, on economic grounds at least. I tend to think the left has been wrong on many of the big issues in history, though I won’t pollute this post by naming them.

    I will say that I was on the same side as the left on this one, throughout the 80s, though of course it is going to be very hard to find anyone who admits the opposite. As a quite burly black South African colleague of mine said to me once “You know it’s funny, I never ever meet any white South Africans who claim to support the old regime…”

    So we have to say that on this issue those on the left were almost uniformly on the right side of history and decency, and too many on the right were not, to their eternal discredit.

    So what of the man himself? Well racism, mostly casual racism of telling jokes, using ‘those’ words etc was common where I grew up, but unfortunately full blown National Front and neo nazi soccer hooligan racism was not uncommon. So one of the abiding memories of my childhood was sitting around a campfire outside our youthclub with two South African activists who had visited us as we sand “Rohihlahla, Mandela Mandela! Freedom is in our hands!” in such a community.

    He really did touch and change the peoples of the world more than any figure in my lifetime. Rest in peace Madiba. Freedom is in our hands.

    • Dave Simons

      I’d challenge you to indeed ‘pollute this post’ by naming the big issues
      in history which the Left has got wrong. Democracy? Equality? Vietnam?
      Women’s Lib? Gay Rights? Health and Safety at work? A living wage?
      Bloody Sunday? I could go on. As for the economy you’re probably
      referring to bureaucratic state control, something certainly admired by
      some people on the Left, like Sidney and Beatrice Webb, but never more than a short-term means to an end for people like Marx and Engels.

  • georgewoodhouse

    Many of our political leaders, now and in recent years, could learn a great deal by studying the leadership qualities of Mandela. A clear message of love and reconciliation, with unbending courage and integrity. An unbeatable combination. We desperately need more politicians like him around the world.

  • ZintinW4

    I agree Alistair. It was not the right or the Tories who pressed for Mandela’s release. They called him a terrorist and argued that sanctions were irresponsible. We knew they were wrong. In the end truth, the gentle truth, won through.

  • Ehtch

    Go for it my man, and make sure you have those two digits ready to stick up in front of certain faces. I will chip in with observations on the way, as I do. I know shite when it is in front of me.

  • Ehtch

    While I am at it, ref. twitter pic, Jackie with her boa in West Germany in the mid 1960s, with an appropriate song, as Emma, due to AHEM!, record company contract issues at the time, screwed, as you do…

  • Ehtch

    Do you want to do some sort of blog thread on this Ali? Just touch on it if it is best now, I won’t mind, for the future bigger picture, if you get me. Just hint and touch at it might be best now. But summer 2014 the mind baffles, will make summer 2011 Butlins and Pontins happy campers, Ali! It’s got to blow, and I don’t like it, but when push comes to shove…

    • Michele

      Sorry to interrupt but why is there no footage of what had happened ‘before that punch’? Selective editing before it reached the Beeb?
      the journalist have demanded the footage or at least some yadder, some ‘anchor’ of
      what preceded it before broadcasting something so inflammatory?

      Follow Ms Sketchley
      who btw, seems to have never considered the possibility that some Police themselves might have been students and sincerely empathise on the fees topic but Uni property is just what it says on the can.

      ‘Jackboot tories use thug police to quell student protest’
      ‘A woman thrown violently to the ground’ – think Mr Mason was using a bit of embellishment there, she overbalanced.

      Ehtch, POs don’t attend these skirmishes out of the love of a scrap
      (yep, you disagree) and they don’t even ‘rock up’ (ha ha) to them
      out of choice.(you’ll be snorting about that too). They get ordered
      there even when they might empathise with the demonstrators (do you
      imagine none of them have children that are students?).

      Grow up ffs, I know it’s boring but so is such kneejerkism before it’s more than partially informed.

      • Ehtch

        It was Channel 4 news.

        As with the military, Peelers have to follow orders – that is how the pyramid system works. And we know who is at the top, don’t we? And calm down Michele, I am only observing, as many, sitting on my fence. But many may climb off it. Onto which side? Well, more one way than the other it will be. I may be losing my balance on that fence soon, even.

        • Gillian C.

          Just out of curiosity Ehtch, who do you think or believe is at the top of the pyramid?
          Personally, I do believe there is a pyramid system at work here. There is so much evidence out there to support this belief.
          All the while that the powers that be are able to keep the people divided amongst themselves, through race, religion and petty politics, they will continue to rule over us. If the people ever truly come together, then it would be game over for the power elite.

          • Ehtch

            Hard to tell these days Gillian. Used to be the PM, but who knows these days. International global corporates? ; )

        • Michele

          Yep, they do, and I’m sure they and their families, when following those orders, hope they will really arrive at the scene of a legitimate protest, one at which they might even share a few nods and winks and handshakes with protesters and be able to empathise.
          £9kpa is wrong but do you imagine for one second that Camsham, the son of a magistrate (the mother he invoked to mock Harriet Harman about a few years ago) will give in to hooliganism and protests that are so plainly infiltrated by thugs?

          Should TB /GB have done so if faced with such a version of ‘protest’ – it was hardly intellectual was it?
          I do feel for the student leader, he doubtless hoped for something that would make the argument better than earlier protests have but he needs to publicly DISown the infiltrators instead of turning on the OH SO easy fave target.
          Stow your bile Ehtch (am not sorry to disappoint your wish to rabble rouse here).

      • Michele

        Sorry to keep on marring this thread but this is more film of the original demo Ehtch.

        I’m getting sick and tired of students comparing themselves to those of the 60s etc. Are some of them (flinging around words like ‘jackbooted’) even comparing themselves to those under Nazism – never mind the pathetic comparison on one placard about Mandela?.

        Fee-free and maintenance grant-aided higher education was not so much for individuals’ own benefit but for the country that was on its knees, had lost so many of its educated a couple of decades earlier. Dozens of Spitfire pilots died per month (‘our’ best mathematicians).

        Look at the difference in Uni/Art College equipment these days compared to the dingy dumps of old and then wonder about the mathematical skills of these complainers …… how the hell are they – being so clevr like – incapable of realising how much tax they will save in years to come (ie: those that haven’t announced they’ll become expats anyway)? Were those free-Uni students able to get flexi-hours work at minimum wage and even have flexi-length courses?

        Ye gods I could go onand onand onandonand on ha-ha 😉

        • Ehtch

          Oh shut up Michele, you chronically obviously bought creature – talk to the hand. You are obviously been told to follow the line or you will lose your civil service pension. You are so see through, you shameless bought excuse. YOU make me depressed. Bet you donate to these spurious charities too to keep them in work, ey?

          You people really make me laugh, you really do Michele, you mole.

          • Michele

            Wossup Ehtch? Can’t take being disagreed with?
            Bought? By whom?
            I have no Civil Service pension (nor any other occupational one). That’s my own fault for having been in an industry I chose as it was so much fun and so exacting.

            Bought – again, by whom ? It is MY opinion I am spouting, or ALL of them are.
            Am not sure what you mean about charities or how I get the blame if you are depressed, obviously you are the only person that happens to.

            I DARE to disagree with you, I have no ambition to pretend to be Citizen Smith just by donning a beret or being on auto pilot against any authority just for the pseudo-trendy sake of it.

            Use your effing judgement.
            ANY protest these days can be infiltrated by users that have nothing to do with the nominated cause and those hooligan COWARDS with their masks pushing over waste bins full of flames and clogging up so much of WORKERS’ London make me spew. End of.

          • Ehtch

            Give me strength Michele, again! A beret wearing Citizen Smith? Where do you want it all to go? We are living in an age of intricate euthanasia for the mass population – technology used mad, all for the dollar sign at the bottom right hand corner in the biggest possible profit of any balance sheet, and blow the human race.

            Understand now the point I am trying to make? We need a Jesus to turn over the money tables in their temples again – that is what we really need for Xmas.

      • Michele

        Ooops, not Beeb, I’d not known PM’s gorn to Ch 4 :-s

        This is more of the later demo from other views.,AAAAAEabvr4~,Wtd2HT-p_Vh4qBcIZDrvZlvNCU8nxccG&bctid=2924513264001

        I do think it’s hypocritical when protesters wear face covering.

        The POs show more than their faces (when not in fire protection) AND display shoulder numbers.

        So much hypocrisy in so much of this stuff.

    • Michele

      Here y’are Ehtch, fill yer boots 🙂

      • Ehtch

        Since I am 200 miles from the border of MetPol, I will let others there complain Michele. I will keep an eye out on my locals, DPPol. Know a few of them directly anyway, and they do have a whinge now and again, in the pub that is, after a few drinkies, on internal affairs, off the record, keep it to yourself type thing… ; )

    • Michele

      Just had a lovely morning visiting my newborn first grandchild so …..

      how sad that this crap still rankles

      This is why Police were called in by the Uni fearful for the property :

      This is more about the event, some nice terminology in there eh? That’s what I like about people pretending to be ingenuous :

      It’s make your mind up time for them – a peaceful protest, so DO IT, learn from others that have.

  • Michele
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