June 14th 1964. It was just over two weeks before my 14th birthday and I didn’t have a care in the world.
Some time that day, or in the next few days, my father remarked he was amazed that Nelson Mandela hadn’t been sentenced to death and would have to break rocks on Robben Island for the rest of his life. He expressed the view that this was outrageous and it was really all because he was black and wanted to be treated as equal.
This aroused my interest. Who was this black man and where was Robben Island? I began a lifelong interest in Mandela, the anti-apartheid movement and South Africa – and saw the Co-operative Movement play its part in the fight.
For my part, I wrote letters to influential people or went into greengrocer’s shops, filled my basket with South African goods and queued up. When I got to the till I asked the country of origin of the fruit and, told it was South Africa, I tipped the basket up so the fruit rolled everywhere and said: “Oh no, I can’t buy fruit from a country that practises apartheid,” and walked out.
I got banned from many stores for doing this. The one place I didn’t and couldn’t do it was at the Co-op because the Movement was in the vanguard of the boycott: that is one of the things I am most proud about.
Sanctions hit South Africa hard and as world condemnation grew, the hardline stance softened and Mandela and his fellow prisoners were moved to Pollsmoor Prison and then the more relaxed Victor Verster Prison, until he was freed in 1990. His stance for the rest of his life was reconciliation. He didn’t want revenge – not even on those who treated him badly on Robben Island.
For millions of South Africans, Mandela is the Father of the Nation. Everywhere, buildings, roads, bays and bridges are named for him; there are statues everywhere. To billions around the world he is an icon of tolerance and forgiveness, of peace, reconciliation and fortitude.
The most emotional experience of my life was visiting his cell on Robben Island. I was so proud to meet one of his fellow prisoners, Ntozelizwe Talakumeni, who, when he found out I was part of the Co-operative Movement, thanked me for the role we played in the boycott of South African goods. I’ve visited Liliesleaf Farm in Rivonia, Johannesburg, where most of the ANC leadership except Mandela were caught; his old home in Soweto; and the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg.
Mandela restored a marginalised country to a place in the world with the minimum of bloodshed and terror, and his example should be taken up by all world leaders where factions need to at least learn to live in some sort of amicability. RIP, Nelson Mandela, go and join your departed ANC comrades – most of all Ruth First, Joe Slovo, Walter and Albertina Sisulu and Oliver and Adelaide Tambo. Your spirit lives forever.