THIS week would have been Nelson Mandela’s 100th birthday, and here in London Nelson Mandela’s statue in Parliament Square stands as just one small testimony of the triumph of freedom and humanity over oppression that he led.
The unveiling of the statue, sculpted by the late Ian Walters, was one of my proudest moments as Mayor of London, and came after seven years of campaigning from myself, Lord Richard Attenborough, Wendy Woods (widow of anti-apartheid campaigner Donald Woods) and thousands of ordinary Londoners who supported the idea.
It’s perhaps not widely known that getting agreement for — and then finding an appropriate location for — the statue took many years and experienced many obstacles.
It was first attempted to place the statue on the north terrace of Trafalgar Square. At one point, this proposal was dismissed as “clutter.”
Nonetheless, there was enormous support around the world for the statue. As Rev Jesse Jackson said: “To those who oppose this tribute I say you are standing in the way of history.”
Once the statue was agreed, I still vividly remember the ceremony where Nelson Mandela and his wife, Mrs Graca Machel, witnessed the unveiling of the bronze statue, alongside then Prime Minister Gordon Brown, and others.
Speaking at the unveiling of the statue I said the following words which remain as true now as they did then:
“Mr Mandela, there can be no more fitting place than this square. Long after we are forgotten, you will be remembered for having taught the world one amazing truth, that you can achieve justice without vengeance. I honour you and London honours you.”
The unveiling of the statue aimed to send a powerful signal around the world about how we as a society view racism and the struggle waged against apartheid by Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress (ANC).
We must continue to honour Nelson Mandela’s legacy today and those of all the millions of South Africans, and anti-apartheid campaigners around the world, who showed that a better world really is possible.
Indeed, the reason that so much energy was invested into the campaign at Mandela statue was not only about one man, but a statue symbolising all those who struggled to throw off racism and oppression, just as when we mark #MandelaDay each year it is about so much more than one man.
The statue (and the one on the South Bank from the GLC days) also serves as an invaluable reminder of the special relationship that Mandela developed with the British people through the long years of struggle against apartheid.
In his memoir Long Walk To Freedom, Mandela described a visit to London before his long period of imprisonment.
He set out the contradictory feelings provoked by seeing the institutions of the British state for those in Africa fighting for liberation.
“Oliver and I saw the sights of the city that had once commanded nearly two-thirds of the globe,” he wrote. “Westminster Abbey, Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament.
“When I gloried in the beauty of these buildings, I was ambivalent about what they represented. When we saw the statue of General Smuts near Westminster Abbey, Oliver and I joked that perhaps someday there would be a statue of us in its stead.”
The notion that black leaders of an African movement for national self-determination would be represented among the statues in Westminster must indeed have seemed an unlikely one.
But a few decades later that is exactly what happened — a statue of Mandela would stand a short distance away from the very institutions of British government that once ruled the colonies in Africa.
It did so precisely because of the profound sacrifice and political leadership that was shown by Nelson Mandela and his comrades in taking on and defeating the racist apartheid system.
Looking at the significance of this struggle for those struggles in the world for justice and equality today, we can reflect on a number of important factors that were required in the long campaign against apartheid.
First and foremost, a brilliant leadership was prepared to make huge individual sacrifices and give clear direction.
Mandela personified and gave voice to the entire movement, the hundreds of thousands who fought and made terrible sacrifices in order to liberate their country from the racist apartheid system.
Mandela and the ANC — alongside their steadfast allies in the South African Communist Party and the Congress of South African Trade Unions — provided a leadership that could both command the support of the majority black population of South Africa and was also seen by the rest of the world as a serious and representative political force.
Second, to defeat apartheid the struggle of the black majority was joined by a movement of solidarity worldwide, ranging from individual boycotts, mass demonstrations, all the way through to such actions as the Cuban troops who took on and smashed the South African army in Angola.
And underpinning all of this was the determination to keep going over each obstacle, even to turn those obstacles back against those who produced them.
The South African authorities deployed every single conceivable weapon in their attempt to cling to power. Each of the obstacles placed in the path of the ANC was eventually overcome.
The authorities must have believed that the imprisonment of the ANC leadership, for example, would solve their problem. Certainly there were those outside who shared the view that this was insurmountable.
“The ANC,” said Margaret Thatcher in 1987, “is a typical terrorist organisation… Anyone who thinks it is going to run the government in South Africa is living in cloud-cuckoo land.”
To maintain the struggle against every attack and setback was a characteristic of the entire movement.
We must never forget the anti-apartheid struggle and we all have a duty to carry on the fight for a better world today, whether that be against racism at home or against injustice — and in support of freedom fighters — around the globe.
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