MumsnetGuestBlogs (MNHQ) Thu 05-Dec-13 22:26:06

Diane Abbott: "Nelson Mandela shaped a generation"

Nelson Mandela, South Africa's first black president and the man who broke apartheid, has died. Here, Diane Abbott MP reflects on his impact on her own life, and the lives of those involved in the struggle for justice around the globe.

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Diane Abbott

MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington

Posted on

Thu 05-Dec-13 22:26:05

(20 comments)

Nelson Mandela: the father of post-apartheid South Africa

The struggle against apartheid and to free Nelson Mandela was one of the signature campaigns of the era when I came of age politically.

For a young black woman growing up at a time when crude racism was much more common than it is now, Nelson Mandela and the anti-apartheid struggle made your own struggles part of something bigger and more transcendent. Day-to-day racism can be an isolating experience. Nelson Mandela reminded me that I was part of an international campaign for racial justice. And that was somehow reassuring.

So, as a young woman, the anti-apartheid struggle was very much part of my life. It wasn't just going to meetings and demonstrations. There were the consumer boycotts, notably of Barclays bank. I got into the habit of automatically examining the labels on fruit, to make sure I wasn't inadvertently purchasing South African citrus. And I will never forget the first time I heard the ANC anthem Nkosi Sikelel iAfrica (God Bless Africa) sung by an African choir at an anti-apartheid rally. It sent a shiver down my spine - and remains one of the most moving pieces of music that I know.

His charisma and dignity were immediately obvious. But the thing that struck me most was that there was no bitterness or anger about him. He had spent the best years of his adult life in prison. He knew that so many of his friends and comrades had been tortured and killed by the apartheid regime. But he exuded kindness and a regal calm.

In the Eighties I got to know some of the key figures in the anti-apartheid struggle who were in exile in London. Many of them knew Mandela personally. Adelaide Tambo, the wife of the General Secretary of the ANC Oliver Tambo, became a good friend. Adelaide had known Nelson Mandela since they were young people starting out in life. She herself was an extraordinary woman: stately, dignified and completely devoted to the struggle against apartheid. I used to visit Adelaide in her home in Muswell Hill. She would speak about Nelson Mandela with the utmost reverence - but with an intimacy that made me feel connected to him too. Getting involved in a campaign nowadays often just means clicking a link on a computer. But thirty years ago Nelson Mandela and the campaign against apartheid became part of the warp and weft of my political life.

Like many people, I will never forget seeing the live television pictures of Nelson Mandela being released from prison in 1990, hand in hand with his wife. It was something that I had campaigned for all my adult life and it was incredible to see it really happening. Later that year, I was privileged to meet Nelson Mandela when he visited Britain for the first time. His charisma and dignity were immediately obvious. But the thing that struck me most was that there was no bitterness or anger about him. He had spent the best years of his adult life in prison. He knew that so many of his friends and comrades had been tortured and killed by the apartheid regime. But he exuded kindness and a regal calm.

Then, in 1994, I visited South Africa for the very first time to be an official observer at their first democratic elections. Getting up at dawn to travel to polling stations in Soweto to see black people, who suffered so much for their freedom, casting (often with trembling hands) their first vote was very moving. And, when Nelson Mandela was declared South Africa's first democratically elected president the next day, I was reminded that struggling for justice is always the right thing to do - even when the chances of success seem remote.

By Diane Abbott

Twitter: @HackneyAbbott

Selks Thu 05-Dec-13 22:36:34

Simply, a great man.

Huitre Thu 05-Dec-13 22:45:27

Thanks, Diane. He was a great great man. He lived a long life and a better one than most of us can hope for. This brought tears to my eyes. I wish I had been lucky enough to meet him.

hakunamatata8 Thu 05-Dec-13 23:27:16

Thank you Diane, My heart is heavy, he has a great loss to our people

SabsFabulous Thu 05-Dec-13 23:36:20

Thanks Diane. A sad day

JaquelineHyde Fri 06-Dec-13 00:17:23

Thank you Diane.

I remember vividly the day Mandela was released from prison. I had just turned 12 and will never forget my Mum crying and cheering whilst she danced around the sitting room.

An amazing man, a true hero and I'm sure there will never be another one like him.

Salbertina Fri 06-Dec-13 05:27:50

So Kate, obvious question, are you Diane or just quoting her (did i read the post too quickly?)

Am here in SA and just hoping that something of Mandela's legacy remains- people of all races/backgrounds have lost faith in the ANC (but there's no real alternative) and there's a lot of bitterness about the appalling housing, 28% unemployment rate and inadequate schooling here - all the promises not delivered on in 19 years of democratic government.
Any comments?

DrankSangriaInThePark Fri 06-Dec-13 06:14:16

I remember the day he was released as well, although was significantly older than Jacqueline. smile

I was just sitting thinking, before I read this, that the "idea" of Nelson Mandela rather than the person himself did indeed "shape a generation" - although the bit of my generation it shaped was the privileged trendy lefty UK university student with the obligatory Mandela Bar and ANC stickers on our folders. So we were just playing at being shaped really.

Salbertina- I think, sadly, that's true of most governments and systems in most countries. I can't think of anywhere in the world where the government/system does its people good, always.

Mandela's story is already the stuff of history books and hopefully will continue to be so, without the inevitable mythologizing and backlash that generally comes after such an important figure dies. I hope he doesn't begin to get the Princess Diana/Mother Teresa treatment. I don't think he would have liked that.

Salbertina Fri 06-Dec-13 06:30:02

Drank- but its fairly desperate here! Zuma is a laughing stock to all. And the government is corrupt. Not a typical - inevitably disappointing when in power- government at all. People have lost their faith in the ANC but reluctantly vote it in as no alternative. Meanwhile regardless of the international perception of a rainbow nation, you look round it and you wonder if apartheid ever ended.
Many/most black people live in squalid shacks without running water in unsafe, crime ridden townships, THAT'S what I am talking about!!!

Shallishanti Fri 06-Dec-13 11:34:15

thank you Diane. I remember the day he was released clearly too, and trying to impress on DS1 (still a preschooler) that this was something he should remember. More recently I used to use a quote of his, that poverty was like slavery and apartheid, a human construct to be dismantled by himan effort (I paraphrase) and was always moved when the young people or children I worked with could not tell me what apartheid was, although they usually knew his name. And that I think is one of things we have to be grateful for, that he led a struggle that succeeded, and showed us that nothing is hopeless and the 'natural order of things' can be changed.
In his memory, we should take the courage to face up to what needs to be done, and work for a better world.

timidviper Fri 06-Dec-13 12:57:48

I agree that he was a great man and we should all remember him and his achievements.

I do find it concerning though that history seems to be being rewritten in front of our eyes and nobody is questioning that. We all agree that apartheid and institutionalised racism is appalling and the South African state was an oppressive regime but Mandela was not just in prison for peacefully disagreeing with apartheid, he led an organisation that ran a bombing campaign which killed ordinary members of the public, rather as the IRA did here (although he didn't plant these himself). Media coverage today has implied that he led only peaceful resistance and the only bombs were on infrastructure, whereas my understanding was that targets included shopping centres and a cinema and innocent people died.
I understand that one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter and he was undoubtedly on the side of right and justice but to paint such a sanitised version of Mandela is to whitewash history. I suppose I'm just saying let's not paint him as a saint, he was a wonderful and inspiring man but not perfect

I spent a few years in South Africa in those apartheid years and, although I tried to help in small ways with voluntary work etc, it made me realise I could never be as brave as Mandela in standing up for what is right, I suspect most of us couldn't and, having grown up in a free country never realise the full impact of how hard it must be to take that stand.

Personally I think his past made him an even greater man and in glossing over his struggle we diminish him. He spent longer in jail than he could have done as he refused to renounce violent action against the apartheid regime and yet still emerged from that jail with a wonderful attitude of peace and forgiveness which has so impacted world politics and all of us .

Salbertina I understand your frustration with the current government. It is sad that so much has been accomplished, often at great human cost, and yet the lives of so many people have not improved or worsened.

NotCitrus Fri 06-Dec-13 13:00:08

I'm probably the generation that was shaped by him. I remember once when I was about seven being told I could go to university when I grew up and be student. I asked what students did other than go on demos and sing Freeee Nel-son Man-del-a, which didn't sound that interesting for three years.

I was applying for unis when he was freed, and wondered what students would protest about now (poll tax, grant cuts, section 28, much more), but certainly it was the profile of Mandela that got me into reading newspapers and watching the news to try to learn more about politics and the world.

I voted for the first time a couple days after the first multi-racial elections in South Africa. It certainly motivated me to get off my backside and wander down to a polling station.

And seeing his speeches setting a tone of forgiveness and helping create a transition to post-apartheid SA without a bloody revolution, provided hope for achieving so many other politcal aims, no matter how far there still is to go in SA.

summerdip Fri 06-Dec-13 15:44:59

A shining light of our generation. An inspiring man - not perfect as said above but human and real and clearly compassionate.

The struggle of other sis truly humbling.

1andonlyTwinsplustwo Fri 06-Dec-13 18:18:41

I've been thinking about this and wrote earlier http://musingssahm.blogspot.co.uk/2013/12/nelson-mandela.html
Does the end justify the means? I think it does, at times, but that has huge ramifications....

GoshAnneGorilla Sat 07-Dec-13 18:58:06

Nelson Mandela was not like the IRA. Go and google the Sunningdale Agreement. It was a power-sharing agreement identical to the Good Friday Agreement that extremists on both sides on Northern Ireland rejected, thus allowing the conflict to continue for another 25 years.

No such agreements were ever offered by Apartheid govts, nor did they tolerate peaceful protest, so no, you cannot compare NM or the ANC to the IRA.

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scottishmummy Sun 15-Dec-13 00:04:22

I like Diane Abbott, I like hearing here opinion.she's a smart lady

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