Sunday, 8 December 2013

Nelson Mandela: My Part In His Release

I wasn't going to write a blog about Nelson Mandela, who died at the age of 95 on Thursday, as there has been a lot already written but a couple of things changed my mind.

Yesterday afternoon I stood to give a minute's applause with a crowd of 10,000 people at a football match in Edinburgh, marking the passing of a man once derided by our government as a terrorist. This just struck me as a pleasing, but bizarre, situation. I thought back to the annual sponsored walk around Pollok Park that we used to do as a family when I was a child, raising money for the Scottish Committee of the Anti-Apartheid Movement. The sum total of people who seemed interested in the wellbeing of Nelson Mandela at that time seemed to consist of my dad and his friends in the organisation.

Edinburgh and EOS Jags fans going to yesterday's game
alter their flag to mark the passing of Nelson Mandela

The other thing was that unbeknown to me, Conservative Party Central Office seems to have been a secret hot bed of campaigners against oppression in South Africa during the 1970s and 1980s, despite those all expenses paid "fact finding" trips to the country they took and the notorious "Hang Mandela" posters. Marina Hyde covers this nicely in the Guardian today.

So if David Cameron now wishes to reposition himself on the right side of history, then to paraphrase Spike Milligan's title, I feel I can share the story of my part in Mandela's release. By doing so I only want to make sure that the people who did work tirelessly to raise the issue of apartheid in South Africa are not overlooked. This is something Janey Buchan was keen to do in a letter to The Herald newspaper 20 years ago when Mandela visited Glasgow (although the main point of her letter was to say that it was all her idea about the Freedom of the City, not Michael Kelly's).
Those of us who were present at the ceilidh to celebrate Mandela's visit were pleased that, at last, the consistent support and hard work over long, long years of John Nelson, treasurer of Scottish Anti-Apartheid, was finally marked in a speech by the equally hard-working chairman of Scottish Anti-Apartheid, Brian Filling. Everyone got to their feet. It was absolutely in character that, when this salute was made, John was not in the hall -- he was outside selling T-shirts and pamphlets. Now, that's a punter. That's consistency and commitment, and when the necessary fund-raising and supportive action gets under way for the free and fair elections in South Africa we will know that the John Nelsons of this world will not be found wanting. 
Janey Buchan, MEP, Herald letters, 21 Oct 1993
 This just nicely encapsulates my memories of the Anti-Apartheid Movement I knew as a child. Brian Filling out front doing the speeches and John Nelson, with his wallpaper table as bookstall, tartan shopping trolley full of pamphlets, books and badges on the side trying to raise money and spread the word. My parents, my aunts and uncles were all involved too. My dad was very active in it and I think worked more alongside trade unions in Scotland to promote the Anti-Apartheid agenda. The bookstall in the shopping trolley was often taken around by my dad too, and that was where I first saw the face of Nelson Mandela. The chubby-faced photograph of a young man on the front cover of "The Struggle Is My Life" was burned onto my memory, so that I was really shocked when the tall, thin, grey-haired old man emerged from prison in 1990.

It just seemed weird that a country was allowed to treat the majority of its people in the way South Africa did. As a child I could understand that injustices were going on in South Africa, how education, housing, medical care, sport, all aspects of life were segregated along racial lines. I knew that a black man was never going to be able to get the same wage there as a white man, or be able to cast a vote. It just was not fair. Why was this allowed to happen? It couldn't happen unless other countries were allowing it to happen, that was obvious to me. However it had only been a few years since America had finally decided that maybe it wasn't acceptable for black people to have to sit on a different part of the bus from whites. So maybe what struck me as a bizarre way to run a country was more acceptable to others. The fact that my parents and their friends campaigning against apartheid were often trade unionists and communists (although many were not "political" and the church was very active in the campaign) maybe provides a clue to the British and American support to apartheid South Africa. They saw it as a bulwark against communist influence in South Africa and nearby Rhodesia, Mozambique and Angola. Many in the ANC who campaigned for justice in their country saw communist ideas as a way to bring the equality they sought.

So even before freeing Nelson Mandela was made a focus for the campaign, trying to bring attention to him and all the other political prisoners in the country, there were plenty of people like us who never bought Outspan oranges or banked with Barclays (who did a lot of business in South Africa). Thatcher and Reagan made sure that no biting boycott ever rocked the financial stability of South Africa and I'm sure the fact that Denis Thatcher had business links to South Africa had no influence on her thinking. I also made judgements on musicians and sportsmen on whether or not they supported the boycotts of South Africa, and ultimately it was from these boycotts that some of the biggest worldwide pressures began to be applied. My mum travelled down to the Borders to picket the travelling Springboks rugby team. This fact later earned her pariah status when she worked in an office in that area when she explained why she had been to the town before. The England cricket team were a bunch of individuals that it was easy to dislike even before they toured South Africa, but it meant I could dislike them from the moral high ground. Ian Botham rose in my estimation as he did boycott the tours, struck by how his friend Viv Richards would be treated in that country. Again it is easy to be sniffy at Elton John and Queen, but when you know that they were happy to take the Krugerrands and play at Sun City, you can feel that you were correct in your musical judgement.

Amandla UK tour programme 1985 and album of songs by Mayibuye
The ANC plan wasn't all cultural boycotts. South African trade unionists, speakers and musicians were often in Glasgow trying to draw attention to the plight of people in their country, such as the musicians of "Mayibuye". In the sleeve notes of their album they note that as the ANC has been banned since 1977 "in South Africa today there is no road to freedom except the armed road." When these people came to town they were often put up in our flat in Maryhill. Due to the various campaigns that my parents were involved with there were often people passing through our place in Maryhill. As children we heard first hand stories from Palestine, Iran, Portugal (which was still run as a dictatorship into the mid-70s) and South Africa. Of all of these temporary lodgers the most memorable for my brother and me had to be Zola Zembe. Like his name (an adopted nom de guerre) he had a zip and a zing about him and I was delighted to see him looking so well when being interviewed on ITV last night, talking about Mandela. He now uses his real name again, Archie Sibeko. He told us stories about beatings he had had in South Africa from the police. But he also told us stories about how rhinos were evil buggers who had poor eyesight but would wait for hour after hour at the bottom of a tree if you had fled up it, ready to trample you as soon as you came down. He had been charged alongside Mandela in the "Treason Trial" and shared a cell with him, before fleeing the country and was at that time trying to organise trade union support in Western Europe. One effect of his trade union work brought two Irish woman to stay with us as they made a speaking tour in Scotland. They wanted to make people aware of the picket by Dunnes shopworkers in Ireland. When two young workers in a Dunnes store in Dublin were suspended for following union advice, refusing to handle South African fruit, they were suspended. This lead to a 2 and a half year long strike at the shops and the eventual banning of fruit and veg imports by Ireland from South Africa. Bizarrely I bumped into the same two Irish women when I was in Moscow in 1985 as a 14 year old and had a good old natter.

The focus of the Anti-Apartheid campaign shifted towards the treatment of the political prisoners, using the 60th birthday of Nelson Mandela in 1978 to draw attention to the issue. We sent postcards of support to him in prison and when the Labour group at Glasgow City Council proposed offering Nelson Mandela the Freedom of the City, the campaign was finally making it onto the front pages. Although the editorial line of the Glasgow Herald initially sneered at the council getting involved in the plight of a man 6000 miles away, by the time he was awarded it in absentia in 1981 their line had changed. Tory councillors in the city continued to deride him as a terrorist. When Jerry Dammers and the Special AKA released the single "Nelson Mandela" in 1984, and covered the back of the sleeve with information on the situation in South Africa and contact details for the Anti-Apartheid Movement, momentum seemed to be building. Steve Van Zant organised others in America to declare that they weren't gonna play "Sun City". By the time the "Freedom at Seventy" campaign came around in 1988 people were queueing up to add their names to the campaign and a concert at Wembley in London generated huge publicity. The Free Mandela March from Glasgow to London that year too was criticised by the Daily Record and letters to The Times still called Nelson Mandela a terrorist, but the tide was turning. In Glasgow 30,000 people turned up to a rally in Glasgow Green to see the marchers off. A Gallup poll showed that 77% of people in Britain had now heard of Nelson Mandela and 45% of the population felt that our government wasn't doing enough. The campaigns also positioned the ANC as the representative of the South African people in people's imagination making it impossible for the South African government to bypass them.

When Nelson Mandela was released in February 1990 from prison it still felt unreal, that years of campaigns and protests seemed to have succeeded. We had a party at our house to watch it on TV and I think there was some delay as I can remember it feeling like it was never going to happen. This was just a step on the road to achieving a more equal society in South Africa. In the 1950s the ANC collected the "freedom demands" from the disenfranchised people of South Africa and produced their "Freedom Charter." They demanded land for the landless people, free and compulsory education, living wages and shorter working hours. Two weeks before his release from prison in 1990 Mandela wrote that "The nationalisation of the mines, banks and monopoly industries is the policy of the ANC and change or modification of our views in this regard is inconceivable."

Two months after his release from prison whilst negotiations were ongoing over a new constitution in South Africa I travelled to London with my brother to see Nelson Mandela at a tribute concert in the same Wembley venue the "Freedom at Seventy" concert had been held two years earlier. (Much as it was a great event, Simple Minds were bloody awful at it.) At the time there was great uncertainty what was going to happen next and this felt like our one chance to see the man himself. The programme declared that "Now, after 78 years of struggle the ANC is preparing for the leading role in a democratic South Africa".

April 1990, programme from "An International Tribute Concert for a Free South Africa"
Whilst campaigning for the upcoming presidential elections in South Africa, Nelson Mandela came to Glasgow 1993. The city had raised his international profile when he had been granted the freedom of the city in the 1980s. In a delightful move the city elders had embarrassed the South African consulate in the city by changing the name of the street their offices were on to "Nelson Mandela Place". I am sure that they endeavoured to find a way to avoid having the address on their stationary. Many of my friends and family were involved in organising the events in Glasgow that day. Whilst my uncle Ronnie, my brother and myself were roped in as "security" at the front of the stage, my dad and cousins were manning stalls. My aunt and my mum were on stage with Mandela in George Square and at the Royal Concert Hall as part of the Women's Socialist choir, Eurydice, welcoming Mandela to our city. It was a special day for everyone present, a long cherished ideal suddenly and unbelievably made real.

Programme and my backstage pass for Mandela's visit to Glasgow, 9th Oct 1993
Nelson Mandela at the podium in Glasgow Royal Concert Hall
with my mum and others from the Eurydice choir behind him
Mandela went on to become elected as the president of South Africa but since then the lot of many ordinary, black South Africans has not improved in the way that they had hoped. Naomi Klein in her book "The Shock Doctrine" dissects the problems faced by the ANC in the chapter appropriately titled "Democracy Born in Chains." When a new constitution was drawn up before Mandela became president, the ANC were soon to discover that they got the state, but without many of its powers. The constitution made them unable to redistribute land as a last minute clause in it protected private proprty rights. Signing up to the GATT had made it illegal to subsidise factories and create jobs. Signing up to the WTO protected the intellectual property rights of the major pharmaceutical companies making them the only source of expensive AIDS drugs. An IMF deal before the elections landed the new state with a massive debt built up by the apartheid regime of which they were no part. Currency control was banned and South Africa's central bank was to be removed from state control and run as an autonomous entity, its independence written into the new constitution, its directors the same people who had run it in the days of apartheid.

The ANC inherited a state in which the ruling National Party had already passed the reins of control to "the markets", following neo-liberal ideology and shrinking the state. "Increasing the public sector in strategic areas through, for example nationalisation" was part of the ANC election manifesto, but within a few years they were selling off state assets to service the national debt. The wealthy mining companies and multinationals who for decades had profited from the apartheid system now positioned themselves to profit under the new regime, whereas it could be argued they in fact owed a debt to the state.

The government of the ANC agreed to service the state debt of the apartheid regime, of which they were no part, to the tune of 30 billion Rand annually, money which otherwise could have been used to build a new nation. Here it is important to see that though Nelson Mandela was a great and inspirational man, he was part of an organisation who seemed to be wrong-footed just as they finally grasped power.

Ian Bell recently wrote that the words of Norman McCaig in his poem "Praise of a Man" summed up Nelson Mandela perfectly. I read the poem this afternoon and have to agree. I cannot add anything to those words so have a look at McCaig's poem and I will leave it there.

1 comment:

  1. Great account of such an important movement, if it hadnt been for these efforts, Mandela would never have bern released.


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