A beacon for all times

Peter Hain on the enduring legacy of Nelson Mandela, ahead of a new exhibition dedicated to his life

To be launched by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, the Nelson Mandela Centenary Exhibition in Queen Elizabeth Hall at London’s South Bank Centre will be a spectacular and fitting tribute to an inspirational and extraordinary global figure. Running until 19 August, it will open with the Mandela Legacy debate (entry to which is free) on the evening of Monday 16 July. Chaired by the BBC's Zeinab Badawi, panellists include Tembi Tambo, daughter of former ANC leader Oliver Tambo, and former ANC activist and Cabinet Minister Pallo Jordan.

The exhibition will also depict the freedom struggle Mandela led, including the international anti-apartheid campaign in which many Labour Party and trade union figures played a key role. Among them, Labour colleagues from the Lords such as Bob Hughes, who chaired the British Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM) between 1976 and 1995, Neil and Glenys Kinnock, Bill Morris and Frank Judd; as well as the late Joel Joffe and Richard Attenborough.

Former Labour MP and Minister Richard Caborn was AAM Treasurer, with Barbara Castle, Frank Dobson and Joan Lestor also involved when the struggle was unfashionable. As too was former Liberal leader David Steel, a long-time President of the AAM. 

Mandela, having secretly left South Africa, asked to meet Conservative Ministers and Foreign Office officials while on a visit to London in 1962. He was rebuffed but did however have important meetings with Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell and his Liberal counterpart Jo Grimond. Although there should be no room for sectarianism in his Centenary celebrations, it is important to recall that the anti-apartheid struggle was hard, bitter and lasted decades. Barely four years before Mandela so memorably walked from prison to freedom in 1990, he was denounced as a ‘terrorist’ by Margaret Thatcher.

With the worthy exceptions of the Scandinavians, most western government – Britain included – said they were against apartheid while either doing nothing or in practice bolstering Pretoria. Meanwhile, direct action protests to stop whites-only Springbok tours in the 1970s provoked fierce anger – especially here, and in New Zealand and Australia. Demands for trade and economic sanctions were also fiercely resisted. But their partial implementation eventually helped propel the white South African business community in the late 1980s to demand radical change of the apartheid government. A regime from which they had so profitably benefitted for so long.

Hundreds of thousands of citizens across the world supported Mandela’s fight for freedom.  Courageous Archbishops – like Britain’s Trevor Huddleston, Ambrose Reeves and David Shepherd – led both from both the pulpit and on the street. Grandmothers boycotted South African oranges. Students forced Barclays Bank off university campuses and then eventually to withdraw from South Africa. Trade unionists worldwide gave solidarity. In the 1980s, the Black Caucus in the US Congress forced a change of policy under President Reagan and a decisive implementation of loan sanctions.

The Centenary Exhibition will tell Mandela’s story from barefoot herd boy to world leader, from freedom fighter to revered statesman, from prisoner to president. In a world suffering from malevolent or poor leadership, he remains a beacon – setting a high standard committed to the enduring values of liberty, democracy, integrity, equality and justice.

Lord Peter Hain is a Labour Peer. He tweets @PeterHain

Peter chairs the Mandela Centenary Exhibition Committee and his new book ‘Mandela: His Essential Life’, published by Rowman and Littlefield, is available HERE.

Tickets for the Mandela Legacy debate on 16 July are FREE and can be booked HERE.

Published 5th July 2018


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