LONDON – Key figures in the British anti-apartheid movement have spoken of their sadness at the death of Nelson Mandela, whom they described as a reluctant poster boy of a campaign that ended up focusing the world’s attention on the horrors of apartheid South Africa.
As their grieving began in earnest, they told how their campaign, derided and pushed to the periphery of British politics in the 1970s and early 1980s, was rebuilt in the U.K. around Mandela, almost against his will.
Mandela wanted to highlight the suffering of all the apartheid regime’s political prisoners, but a conscious decision in 1978 to personalize the campaign was made by Mac Maharaj, a friend of his and formerly a fellow prisoner on Robben Island. And it was from Britain, home to a number of South African exiles, including the then-president of the African National Congress Oliver Tambo, who lived in Muswell Hill, north London, that the personal story of Mandela was to be propagated around the world. In Mandela’s own words, it made Britain “the second headquarters of our movement in exile,” as uncomfortable about the focus as he was.
Lord Bob Hughes, chairman of the British anti-apartheid movement from 1976 to 1995, when it was disbanded, said: “I understand that in later years he wasn’t entirely happy about it. He wasn’t a self-centered politician.”
Baroness Glenys Kinnock, who was a fundraiser for the movement in the 1980s, said: “I think Mandela was somewhat reluctant to take over in that way.”
Yet Mandela’s tale did not immediately set the world alight. Tarnished by those who claimed that the movement was too close to the Soviet Union and, through supporting the ANC, accused of aiding and abetting what Margaret Thatcher described as a terrorist movement, it was a long battle for the movement in Britain.
Initially established as the Boycott Movement in 1959, it became the Anti-Apartheid Movement following the Sharpeville massacre in 1960 of 69 protesters by South African police. But it took not only the emotive Mandela campaign, but a change in generational outlook for it take hold in Britain.
Trevor Phillips, former chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission and chairman of the Free Nelson Mandela committee in the 1980s, said: “Let’s be frank about it, it wasn’t until the 1980s that Mandela became fashionable.
“Those of us involved in politics, we were all wearing the badge. And he was a great hero. But I think for some people on what could be called the glamorous left they were slightly put off because of two things really; the ANC connections with the Communist Party — this was in the middle of the Cold War and the ANC was strongly supported by the Soviet Union.
“And, second, I think that some people thought there was also a slight flirtation with the black consciousness movement which they felt was too political, too much about economic equality and not just black-white stuff.
“But in the early 1980s the level of brutality became so great the Americans got involved and that changed the weather. But also a lot and young people started to get a different attitude towards race and were not so old-fashioned in their views. The whole issue moved from the margins of politics.”
With the symbolism of Mandela being established and with a young generation wanting to make a stand, there was fertile ground in which the campaign could plant its ideas.
Following the South African produce boycotts, and protests at sporting events, in 1986 more than 100,000 people marched on Clapham Common in south London for a festival organized by musician Jerry Dammers. Two years later, on Mandela’s 70th birthday, a huge concert at Wembley Stadium demanded his release from prison. Stevie Wonder flew in. George Michael, Sting, Dire Straits, the Eurythmics and a host of other stars set alight BBC2′s live broadcast to 600 million viewers watching worldwide.
Hughes said: “That was, in the modern phrase, a game changer. That helped immensely to publicize Mandela’s cause and the ANC’s cause.”
However, there were some noisy opponents. Hughes, now 81, said: “On the Wednesday before the concert on the Saturday, a group led by the Tory MP John Carlisle tried to pull the plug on it by claiming that the BBC was funding a terrorist organization. We were not because we were giving all the money to charities. Anyway, it was hugely successful and raised the profile of the whole thing.”
It had taken the involvement of many thousands of people to organize that concert but, of course, many of those involved in the movement had never met its figurehead. Then, just months after his release in 1990, Mandela came to the U.K. where most, but by no means all, were welcoming.
Richard Caborn, a treasurer of the anti-apartheid movement and, as a Labour MP, chair of the all-party parliamentary party on southern Africa said: “We set up a meeting in the House of Commons grand committee room. I went to book it and they advised me it would be better if he didn’t come into the Commons.
“I said, ‘I am sorry, he is’. They wouldn’t allow cameras into the room; those were the conditions.
“But he was not welcomed by the Commons. In fact, he came in through the back door of Westminster Hall and all the cleaners and caterers, who were generally West Indian, provided a guard of honor. He introduced himself to every one of them.” With South Africa’s future still in doubt, so was Mandela’s reputation as a statesman even at this stage. It took the shrewd, tough politician, not the fact of his release from prison, to secure his own legacy according to those intimately involved in the events of the time.
Hughes said: “I first met him at the Namibian independence celebrations and he had just been released from prison. He arrived at the stadium and went and sat at the back, can you believe it?
“In the scrum afterwards I managed to find my way to him and spoke to him and said: ‘Why didn’t you come and sit with the VIPs?’
“He said: ‘This is Namibia’s day. When South Africa’s day comes, I will be at the front.’ “