On meeting Mandela

paul_brannen_with_mandela.jpgHaving been an Anti-Apartheid Movement activist while at Leeds University in the 1980s I was lucky enough to land a full time job working for the Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM) at its headquarters in Mandela Street in Camden, London.

Here I was employed as the convenor of Southern Africa - The Imprisoned Society (SATIS) and in this role I was responsible for organising the campaign aimed at gaining the release of the political prisoners in South Africa including those on death row and those on Robben Island, whose ranks included Nelson Mandela.

As a consequence, not long after his release in 1990 after 27 years in jail, when he arrived in London a free man it was me rather than any other of the AAM staff, who had the privilege of accompanying Mike Terry, Executive Director of the AAM, to the Churchill Hotel in central London to meet Mandela and his delegation.

Arriving at the hotel suite Mike knocked on the door and it was opened by the extremely beautiful and striking Winnie Mandela and in we went.

Once seated we were informed that Madiba was ‘resting’ after the flight and may or may not join us so on went the meeting without him, discussing with his staff and wife the itinerary for the next few days.

Throughout the meeting Mike and I were very conscious that it was Mandela’s feet we could see at the end of the bed through the open door to our right. Occasionally throughout the next 45 minutes they crossed and uncrossed themselves but alas they never moved from the horizontal to the perpendicular. The meeting conclude and we returned to the AAM headquarters.

Understandably the staff all immediately clustered around us “Well, what was he like?” they all wanted to know. Mike and I look at each other slightly embarrassed and together replied “Er, well we are not sure, we only saw his feet.”
Matters took a turn for the better the next day at a reception at the house of the then Secretary General of the Commonwealth, Shridath Ramphal, when we finally got to meet the great man face to face.

I remember his height, his huge but soft hands and that amazing smile.

“And what do you do?” he asked.

“I work for the Anti-Apartheid Movement”, I replied.

“Ah, we have much to thank you for but there is still much work to do, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise”, came the response.

That we had been in the presence of greatness I never doubted but I also knew that the struggle had made Mandela, not the other way round. Over the coming days and months there will be attempts to remove the struggle from the man – just as happened with Martin Luther King after his untimely death. Hence if we are serious about honouring the memory of Nelson Mandela then we should ask ourselves, ‘Which struggle am I going to commit to?’ for by idolising those we honour we fail to realise that we could go and do likewise.

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