“A descendant of slaves who became First Lady with a prisoner of 27 yrs who became President. There is always hope.”
11th February 1990: I am seven years old. It is almost time for our Sunday lunch and I tell my mum that I’m perished, only to be informed that ‘famished’ is the word that I am looking for. At that moment, my dad calls me into the sitting room and instructs me to be quiet and watch what is happening on the television. Take all this in and remember it, he says, because This Is Important. There are crowds and BBC News reporters talking in earnest tones. It is all about a black man from a faraway land being released from prison. I’m confused; isn’t prison where people go when they have done something bad? Why are people happy that he isn’t in prison anymore? I felt as I had a couple of years earlier when my dad had done the same thing and uttered the This Is Important statement when the Berlin Wall came down: clueless as to what was really happening, a bit scared about what it all meant (would we have to live on tins of baked beans for weeks? How Cold War fears lingered on in the late 80s) but also excited that I was watching Something Important unfold – and pleased that my dad considered me grown-up enough to observe Important Events with him.
6th December 2013: the same news outlets are now reporting Nelson Mandela’s death yesterday. There are lots of references back to twenty-three years ago, stirring up my memories of the time. Now I understand why It Was Important. Yet even though I couldn’t comprehend then what Mandela’s release meant, it was still a significant moment in the development of my political consciousness. I was just too young to remember sporting controversies or product boycotts or even The Specials AKA single, so this was my first mindful encounter of the word Apartheid and the horror of what it entailed. Already the proud owner of the Band Aid II single, I was introduced to another manifestation of inequality on that day. Furthermore, my initial reaction – isn’t prison where people go when they’ve done something bad? – continued to niggle away afterwards. Mandela challenged my childish perception of nice people and naughty people, showing me that the judgments made in Courts of Law are not necessarily the ultimate arbitrator of right and wrong (as if such neat and tidy concepts even exist).
Of course I did not put in into those words at the time. I just felt different. It is only as an adult looking back that I recognize what happened: Mandela’s release unsettled my worldview, raising big, complex questions that I’ve wrestled with ever since around justice, inequality and the actions that we as individuals and groups are prepared to take to address such issues. With his death and the outpouring of other people’s reflections on his impact, I’ve realized that this unsettling, this challenging, this questioning, is his legacy in my life.
Mandela changed the world. Mandela changed me.