The world has lost one of its greatest leadership figures. I can think of a number of great leadership figures but of no other who was, arguably, even greater in the way he led his country into transition through peace and reconciliation than he was in struggle.
I was fortunate to meet Mr Mandela in the autumn of 1993 when he paid a visit to Birmingham; I was a young councillor in the city. Birmingham was an important city to the ANC. There was a strong anti apartheid movement here as you might expect in such a diverse city. Birmingham’s political leader at the time was the veteran Sir Dick Knowles, a committed internationalist who had long supported the anti apartheid movement. Under Dick’s leadership Birmingham responded to Mandela’s release by officially twinning Birmingham with Johannesburg and, arguably more importantly, establishing a technical exchange programme for the staff of both councils. As a symbol of a link between Birmingham and South Africa Dick had agued that the prominent white anti apartheid activist Rev Trevor Huddlestone — author of ‘Prayer for Africa’ should be given the freedom of the city but sadly there was not a political consensus amongst the city’s parties that would enable this to happen.
Mr Mandela’s visit was an amazing few days. I remember a private concert for Anti Apartheid activists held in Birmingham’s Symphony Hall where we all danced the night away to Hugh Masekela, Mirian Makeba and band. I also remember a meeting in the new connection centre with business representatives during which an extraordinary Mandela told the business community how he needed their help in rebuilding his country. But what I remember most affectionately was a far more intimate occasion.
Birmingham had built a new primary school in an area of the inner city which faced many challenges and problems. The school was in Dick’s patch and he insisted that it was named after Nelson Mandela at a time when many had not heard of the man. During the 1993 visit it was natural for Mr Mandela to visit the school.
I was the Chair of the city’s Education Committee at the time. I was rung up by the ANC. The visit — they told me — was not designed as a civic event but a chance for Mr Mandela to meet with the community of the school; he was exceptionally honoured in having this school named after him. Would I mind if I was not invited to the occasion? Of course, I wouldn’t mind. Fine they said. We only want politician present, Sir Dick Knowles. I told the I was happy, not least because he had done far more than myself in keeping the flame of free South Africa alive. Something changed and later in the day the ANC rang me back and said they would, indeed, be honoured if I would join them and Dick at the school.
The next morning Dick Knowles and I joined a small guard of honour to greet Mr Mandela at the school. As promised this was not a civi event. The small guard of honour comprised of a couple of parent governors, a couple of teaching assistant, a couple of dinner ladies, a couple of teachers, Dick and myself. Mr Mandela arrived and took his time moving down the line chatting away with the dinner ladies and teaching assistants as if he had bumped into some long lost friends in a supermarket. Dick and I keep exchanging wondrous glances. Eventually Dick turned to me and said, “I thought I’d seen everything in politics comrade, but I’ve never seen anything like this”.
After we were introduced we all moved to a small community room. There was some singing from the children of the school and some Asian and Irish dancing. There was then tea and cake.
The parents of the school were overwhelmingly drawn from Sparbrook’s Asian community and the women present that day were from the areas large Pakistani and Kashmiri population. The women were very nervous and had no idea what to expect, what to say or do when they met the great man.
Mr Mandela sat down in an easy chair with his cup of tea and piece of cake. He began to tell us a story. He told us that in his youth it had been the Asian community in South Africa that had first started the freedom movement. It was the Asian community that had both encouraged and inspired him to get involved in the struggle. It was the Asian community who convinced him that this was a struggle that would be won.
As he talked I could see the parents growing in stature and belief. They radiated pride, not pride in themselves but pride for their own communities. For half an hour or so Mr Mandela made these local women believe that he would not have had the strength to carry on if it had not been for them. It was an extraordinary experience to witness.
A lot of people over the last few hours have talked about Mandela’s charisma. I have been fortunate to be in the same small space as some extraordinarily charismatic people, for example, Bill Clinton carries so much charisma around him that you feel you can reach out, touch it and cut it with a knife. But this was not charisma. What Mandela radiated was simply an amazing and pure humanity. Sitting in that community room was a man who was just enjoying himself, a man who was revelling in the company of these local women. I swear he left that meeting more relaxed and more happy than he arrived.
For me it was Mr Mandela’s deep humanity and love of fellow human being that makes him such an extraordinary figure. I will not see the like of him again in my lifetime. His star will surely shine down the centuries to come.