In the coming days it is hard to imagine anything that could be said about Nelson Mandela being left unsaid. I cannot claim to have any great insight or observation that will not be said better by someone else. But I still want to say something – because Nelson Mandela, without equivocation, has been the single most important political figure in my lifetime. In a way that I cannot say about any other political leader, he touched my life. His contribution, his influence and above all his inspiration towers far higher than anyone else.
For many people my age, becoming political adults in the late 1970s and early 1980s the issue of Apartheid was the international struggle of our time. Of course there were others – but it was always the struggle against Apartheid that mobilised more, and inspired more, than any other.
As a student in London I can remember clearly the marches, the benefit gigs, the ‘socials’ at Dave Cook’s house in Brixton, and the boycotts – to this day I can’t bring myself to use a Barclays ATM.
It was a lesson in politics that, for me, has been enduring. I still believe that it is movements of people that create change, and that for those without the power of capital, our only weapons in the fight for social justice are hope and solidarity.
Nelson Mandela embodied hope and inspired solidarity. It was a hope based on tremendous courage and principle. He showed us that it is possible to win – and to win on the right terms, without compromising on basic beliefs. His death should remind us, that however bleak things may look, it is possible to win and that we should never abandon hope.
And perhaps what is most amazing is that his influence and inspiration were not at all diminished following his release from captivity – indeed they were only enhanced. Whilst locked away, there was always the possibility that the myth was very different to the man – and surely the emergence of a free Mandela would reveal a much more ordinary, and fallible, figure. But nothing of the sort – the man became real after his release, but he never disappointed. Rather, as South Africa emerged from Apartheid, Mandela continued to lead by example and to inspire.
To many people of my age, his legacy has no equal. To the citizens of South Africa his legacy is beyond calculation. It is to be hoped that the liberation movement in South Africa remains faithful to the struggle of Nelson Mandela, and his many comrades, and that the country continues to make progress towards social justice and prosperity. It is clearly not easy, and many problems are faced. But Nelson Mandela’s legacy reminds us that there is always hope, and that winning is possible.
[Back in the 1980s I often associated Robert Wyatt’s music with the anti-apartheid struggle . . . for Nelson Mandela, Wyatt’s version of ‘At Last I am Free‘ seems particularly apposite, at several levels . . .