Well, I suppose we have all had a long time to get used to the idea it might happen, but that does not minimise the sadness, nor the sense of loss, that he has finally gone. Both are reflections of the fact that Nelson Mandela was one of the small number of historical figures from our lifetime whose name will resonate through history for eternity. Many historical figures endure because they were forces of badness. He will do so because he was a force for such good. A good man responsible for great things.
He was uniquely inspiring, and so much a part of our lives and our politics that it is hard for my generation to imagine either without him. His name will live on, however, as a byword for values, courage, resilience, endurance, humanity, forgiveness, reconciliation, the politics of protest, the politics of hope.
Of the famous people and major political figures I have met, only three have caused, on first meeting, the physical sensation of a slightly faster heart rate and hair standing to attention on my neck. Two – Muhammad Ali and Diego Maradona – were from sport. Mandela was the sole political figure who had that effect. And yet he was someone who instinctively put everyone he met at ease. It is a great human being we are mourning, not just a great leader.
So some memories. When he was finally freed, he wanted to come to London fairly soon afterwards to thank the British people, particularly on the left, who had campaigned so hard for his release, and for the anti apartheid movement more generally.
I was at the Mirror and Labour MP Dick Caborn, a leading light in the anti apartheid movement, asked if I could get publisher Robert Maxwell to sponsor the planned tribute concert for Mandela. Maxwell said he would – though I am not sure he ever paid – and part of the deal was that Mandela would come to the Mirror for a meeting and a meal with the then owner.
Mandela was very gracious, lovely to everyone, and I was not alone in feeling I was in the presence of someone special. A picture from that meeting is one of the few pictures of my meetings with public figures that I have kept, and have on display in my office. Maxwell could not resist however giving him ‘advice’ about the art of negotiation, even pointing out that as Mandela had been locked up for so long, he would ‘need to learn’ from people like him, experienced as he was in dealings with Eastern European dictators.
To the embarrassment of everyone else in the room, he said ‘Nelson, one of the most important qualities a negotiator requires is patience.’ To which the saintly Mandela, perhaps reflecting on 27 years in prison, replied gently: ‘Bob, I think I know a thing or two about patience.’ My memory of him from the concert is of him ‘Dad dancing’ with rather more grace, style and rhythm than anyone else in the Royal Box.
I met him several times with Tony Blair, both in the UK and South Africa.I remember when he came to the EU Summit in Cardiff, though some of the big names of world diplomacy were there, he was very much the first among equals, his presence, charisma and grace of a scale and quality that others could only dream of, and admire.
I think it was when he came to Labour conference to thank the Party for the role it had played in the fight to free him that TB said Nelson uniquely managed to make every other politician feel they had something lacking. His preaching of forgiveness and reconciliation – though he might have smiled wryly at some of the tributes being paid by those on the right of politics, airbrushing their role (or lack of it) in the fight against apartheid – was all the more powerful for what he, his family and his people had endured.
There was another time, in an argument about Libya, when Mandela said something TB totally disagreed with, but he knew enough about the power of the Mandela legend to admit ‘the trouble with you, Nelson, is that you are such a saint you can come out with any old nonsense and nobody can challenge you.’ Mandela laughed, slapped his thigh, and nodded in agreement.
My overriding memory of his conference visit is of the staff wanting to have pictures taken with him, and his limitless patience. When we went to South Africa people were always asking me to take books for him to sign, and I remember on a visit to Pretoria asking him to sign one for Monica Prentice, who was one of the messengers in Downing St and one of the few black people working there. She adored Mandela. Of all those who asked me to take a book on that visit, I decided just to take her copy of Long Walk to Freedom, and after the meeting ended I asked if he would dedicate it to Monica. He was very slow and deliberate in his actions, had classically old-fashioned and neat handwriting. He took a while to get the top off the pen, open the book at the right page, and start to write.
He was half way through ‘to Monica’ when he looked up and said ‘hold on, it’s not THAT Monica is it?” And then the smile, and then the laugh.
I have done the tourist thing, visited the cell where he spent so many years, witnessed all over the country the hold he has on the culture, mindset and everyday lives of people. Their grief in South Africa will be almost unbearable, and the void unimaginable. The word legend is much overused. The truth is that perhaps the only genuine living legend we knew in our lifetime, has gone. The sadness all over the world today reflects that reality.
—– if you admire and are inspired by him, help continue the great work by giving to #ACTSA #Mandela #SA
Ps, I hope that in the millions of words the media will devote to Mandela in the coming days, some will go on explaining the role played by a number of Labour MPs in particular in the creation of the Anti Apartheid Movement, and its constant struggle in the face of often huge opposition. Neil Kinnock, Dick Caborn and Peter Hain were among them, and should feel a real pride in the role they played. But if there is one man whose role must never be forgotten it is Bob Hughes, a man who sums up that wonderful statement by Harry Truman that is is remarkable what a small group of people can achieve, provided nobody cares who gets the credit. Bob is one of those people.