John Harris

Journalist & Author

Nelson Mandela in Britain: hero, villain and international treasure

For the left, Mandela was a distant conscience; for the right he was a reminder of how badly they had got things wrong

On 16 April 1990, thousands swarmed into Wembley Stadium for a day-long event titled Nelson Mandela: An International Tribute for a Free South Africa. The running order featured such names as Youssou N’Dour, Neil Young, Simple Minds and Anita Baker – though compared with the main event, they faded into insignificance. Mandela was just two months out of prison and the fight against apartheid was still in full flow. When he took the stage, he was met with an eight-minute standing ovation that was only subdued by the efforts of the bemused longstanding anti-apartheid campaigner Archbishop Trevor Huddleston.

You can see it all on YouTube: Mandela and his then-wife Winnie happily taking in a great roar of love and support, which at one point segues into a mass rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone.

And then his speech: 30 minutes of characteristically measured oratory, punctuated by huge cheers that greeted just about everything he said. “The apartheid crime against humanity remains in place,” he told the crowd. “It continues to kill and maim. It continues to oppress and exploit … Therefore do not listen to anyone who says that you must give up the struggle against apartheid. Reject any suggestion that the campaign to isolate the apartheid system should be wound down … The reward the people of South Africa, of southern Africa and the rest of the world seek, is the end of apartheid and the transformation of our country into a non-racial democracy.”

Given that in 1988 there had been a Wembley concert aimed at celebrating Mandela’s 70th birthday and demanding his release, the day felt like a righteous triumph – though that did not quite ease a tension that informed its wider context.

Britain, after all, was ruled by a Conservative party whose more hard-bitten elements considered Mandela a dangerous untouchable and the anti-apartheid movement yet another leftist irritant. When the idea of an event in London had first been suggested, high-ups in the African National Congress had bristled: the UK remained “Thatcher’s country” – an accessory to apartheid, with a long record of opposing sanctions and backing the delusional policy of “constructive engagement”.

When Mandela faced the press before he went on stage, he tackled the question of a mooted prime ministerial visit to his country as follows: “We would regret it if Mrs Thatcher decided to come to South Africa, because that would give the wrong signals.”

For two years, Thatcher had been pushing for Mandela’s release, though she continued to rile the ANC by holding fast to her no-sanctions position. Three years before, she had maligned the ANC as “a typical terrorist organisation”.

Behind her, there were the Tory battalions whose de facto support for the apartheid regime, along with their sympathies with General Augusto Pinochet in Chile, defined Conservatism’s murky political ID. At events organised by the Federation of Conservative Students – among whose leading lights was one John Bercow – it was de rigueur to wear a “Hang Nelson Mandela” badge. When it was announced that the BBC would be screening the 1990 Wembley event, Tory MP John Carlisle, whose ties to the white South African government extended into the distance, said: “The BBC have just gone bananas … Many will remember his record and the record of his wife as they take the podium. This hero worship is misplaced.”

It seems particularly remarkable how long it took for Mandela to intrude into our politics and culture in a way we soon came to take for granted. For the first 20 years of his imprisonment, he was far from the protest icon he became during the 80s.

The most memorable Anglo-American anti-apartheid song, written by Peter Gabriel, was about Steve Biko; amazingly, Mandela’s first mention in the House Of Commons did not come until March 1983, thanks to a Labour MP called Ken Eastham. By then, however, something was definitely up and, particularly for the loose community of people who defined their politics against the Thatcher project, Mandela was gaining in status.

The decisive moment came in April 1984, when a group of British musicians released the anthem that would soon be sung in townships: Free Nelson Mandela, written by two tone pioneer Jerry Dammers and performed by the Special AKA. A mix of effervescent joy and keening sadness (”Twenty one years in captivity… his body abused, but his mind is still free”), it reached no 9 in the charts.

Meanwhile, the fight against apartheid was informing thousands of British lives: what food you bought, which bank you chose, the people you considered beyond the pale. The latter was not just about politicians: for every British musician who campaigned against apartheid, there was another who had broken the cultural boycott and played the notorious whites-only entertainment complex Sun City, built in one of the fake black homelands that formed part of the system’s infrastructure, and demonised in a Band Aid-esque single of the same name credited to Artists United Against Apartheid and released in 1985.

Among those who attracted no end of odium by playing there were Queen, though two of the band members – Brian May and Roger Taylor – eventually began playing concerts for Mandela’s Aids charity, posing with him for photographs and paying tribute. “It is Nelson Mandela’s ability to forgive that is an inspiration to us all,” said May, which was one way of putting it.

As the 1990s wound on, with Mandela and the ANC finally in power and the long, grinding struggle against apartheid receding into the distance, it was inevitable that such contradictions would be smoothed over. Our understanding of him became tinged with a certain apolitical schmaltz, and treating him with reverence and awe became a matter of national consensus. He thus completed his trajectory – from being a controversial hero of the left and enemy of the hard right, to an honorary role at the very heart of the British mainstream.

Two years after the birth of South Africa’s democracy, he made a state visit to the UK, addressed both houses of parliament, gave a speech in Trafalgar Square and visited Brixton (”the soul of black Britain,” he said). He formed an apparently warm bond with the Queen: according to his memoir Conversations With Myself, he considered her “a fine lady …very sharp. There may be a great deal of formality around her, but as an individual she is a very simple person, very plain.”

By 1997, he was being photographed – alongside Prince Charles – with those shameless British exports The Spice Girls, and royally camping it up. “These are my heroines,” he said. “And I don’t want to be emotional, but this is one of the greatest moments in my life.” The footage of the meeting suggests that Geri Halliwell did not quite get the mischievous intent.

That slightly tawdry occasion gave us a flavour of the part of his life that would become more visible after he left power in 1999: charity dinners, celebrity photo ops, more benefit concerts. For a sense of how strange his life could get, picture him at a huge 90th birthday event in Hyde Park in 2008, puzzling over the identity of Amy Winehouse. Yet Mandela’s periodic reappearances in British culture proved that he still carried a powerful political charge. For the British left, he increasingly acted as a distant conscience; for the right, as a living reminder of how badly they had got things wrong.

In August 2006, when David Cameron was deep into his detoxification stage, he used a meeting with Mandela to define himself against the more odorous aspects of the Tories’ past. Mandela, he wrote in the Observer, was “one of the greatest men alive”. He went on: “Some might find such an attitude odd coming from a Conservative. I would say the opposite: the mistakes my party made in the past with respect to relations with the ANC and sanctions on South Africa make it all the more important to listen now. The fact that there is so much to celebrate in the new South Africa is not in spite of Mandela and the ANC, it is because of them – and we Tories should say so clearly.”

In Cameron’s backstory, there lurked one awkward episode: in 1989, while he was working in his party’s research department and Mandela was still in prison, he had gone on an all-expenses-paid trip to South Africa, funded by a firm lobbying against sanctions.

For Labour people, Mandela was often a source of comfort – for even as they underwent ideological gymnastics, they could at least console themselves with the idea that they had always staunchly opposed apartheid and had a bond with Mandela that Conservatives could only dream about. That said, there were also sharp disagreements, not least when he decried the invasion of Iraq. “A big mistake, Peter, a very big mistake,” Mandela told Peter Hain, then serving in cabinet. “It is wrong. Why is Tony doing this after all his support for Africa? This will cause huge damage internationally.” Such was his fury, that in the build-up to war, he identified Tony Blair as “the foreign minister of the United States” claiming he was “no longer prime minister of Britain”.

With one other Labour politician, however, Mandela seemed to maintain altogether better relations. On 11 May 2010, Gordon Brown marked his last hours as prime minister by writing to a man whose life made his own political trials look trifling. Brown used Mandela’s tribal name, and jointly addressed the note to his third wife. “Dear Madiba and Graça,” he wrote, “I wanted my last letter from Downing Street to be to the two people whom I admire most – for your courage, your leadership and your friendship. You have inspired me, and a whole generation, and I will never forget the change you have made to millions of lives … Always your friend, Gordon.”

It was doubtless conceived as a clever piece of political theatre, though it testified to a remarkable fact: that in the eyes of a British prime minister, a man one of his predecessors had deemed a terrorist was now considered the last word in integrity and statesmanship.

The story spoke volumes about South Africa’s accelerated journey and said something profound about the recent history of Britain. Now, as proved by the statue in Parliament Square, alongside those of Disraeli, Lloyd George, and Abraham Lincoln (and, poetically enough, Jan Smuts), Mandela stands unchallenged as a modern hero – but how dark and twisted did things get for that ever to have been a matter of debate? © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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