What Did Nelson Mandela Ever Do For Me?

I don’t have many childhood memories, probably because I was too busy having fun to think about remembering stuff, but among the few I do have, two songs stick out very clearly in my mind.

 The first is Space Oddity by David Bowie. I remember watching Bowie sing it on Top of the Pops while sitting inside what I can only describe as a large tube. I was two and, bizarrely, I can trace my interest in space to that moment. Why bizarrely? Well because in the same year, 1969 (yes I know, I’m old), my Dad kept me up to watch the moon landing. How much of that do I remember? Nothing. Memory eh? It’s a funny thing.

 The second song I remember is The Specials with Free Nelson Mandela, which you can hear here; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AgcTvoWjZJU  it was released in 1984, when I was 17, and I remember it because it was the song that awaked my personal social conscience.

Don’t get me wrong; by 1984 I was a veteran of many protest marches, mostly, but not exclusively, for CND. I had been encouraged from an early age to think politically and had been taught about the greedy rich and the downtrodden poor, the Irish situation and the terrorists who would kill, even if they didn’t have a cause, but this song challenged me for the first time to decide for myself what I thought about a situation. I had never heard of this guy, Nelson Mandela, they were singing about. I wanted to know why he’d been in prison so long, what had he done and why was his imprisonment so unjust? In short I wanted to know who Stan Campbell was begging to let him go and why.

I did some research and was astounded that a situation like apartheid could possibly exist in the modern world, how could rational people think that it could ever be OK to treat another portion of society almost as a contamination merely because their skin was a darker shade on the continuum? And how could my own government agree with them?

The sense of injustice I felt was personal. It wasn’t something I had been taught or told about or grown up with, it came from deep inside me. I was, for the first time in my life, truly outraged. I joined the protests and boycotts, I spoke to everyone around me, I became passionate in my desire to see Nelson Mandela freed, if only as a symbol of how wrong this system was.

Finally, the great day arrived. I watched, like a lot of people my age, as this almost mythical creature, left his prison and walked, looking like an ordinary man, to his freedom. I was excited and ecstatic but also a little scared. He was, after all, a member of an organisation which had resorted to violence to try and get their voice heard, as people with no hope often do. What would he say? What would happen to South Africa?

We waited.

His answer was the most miraculous thing I have ever seen.

He never once spoke recrimination or revenge. He spoke only peace and reconciliation and his actions matched his words.

He brought hope, not only in South Africa, where it was desperately needed, but also to the millions of people like me. Hope that millions of ordinary people, each individually choosing to make a stand, can change the world.

So, what did Nelson Mandela ever do for me?  He taught me about social responsibility and gave me hope that, no matter how big the evil, if we stand together we will win, he taught me forgiveness is a powerful weapon against hate and that actions speak louder than words.  Lessons I will never forget.

Thank you Madiba, and may flights of Angels carry you to your well-deserved rest.