Friday 6 December 2013

Between the idea and the reality - Mandela and Margaret: the view from Broken Barnet

Labour councillors in Barnet have issued the following statement:

Following the sad news of the death of former President Nelson Mandela, the Barnet Labour Group of councillors have called for an extraordinary Full Council meeting to enable tributes to be given, and to agree a permanent commemoration of his life and work in the form of an Annual Nelson Mandela Memorial Lecture during Barnet's Black History Month.

Leader of the Barnet Labour Group Cllr Alison Moore said: “The sad news of Nelson Mandela’s death gives us all pause for thought about the values we seek to exemplify in the world. His inspiring fight for freedom and justice, against discrimination and hatred through a life of struggle, sacrifice and forgiveness is an example to us all.   As he said – it’s in our hands now to make the world a better place – and we must each find a way to continue that fight for progress and against injustice wherever we find it.”

Cllr Agnes Slocombe, who met Nelson Mandela when he visited London, and has visited South Africa said: “He’s given us all food for thought, and we should all learn a lesson from him.  He was inspirational with his humility and his ability to forgive - a wonderful man.  It hurts me to think of him living for 27 years in captivity and yet he emerged with no bitterness. I visited Robben Island, and went into the cell he was incarcerated in which was very small, and only one person could really fit in -  it’s hard to imagine how anyone could live for so long there.”

A request for an Extraordinary Council meeting has been sent by the Labour leader Alison Moore:

Dear Mr Mayor,

I would like to formally request an Extraordinary meeting of Full Council at the earliest opportunity, in order that Members of the Council can pay tribute to Nelson Mandela following his sad death yesterday evening.

Motion in the name of Cllr Alison Moore for an Extraordinary Meeting of Council:

Council is proud of the inspirational work of Nelson Mandela throughout his long life in fighting racism and injustice. Council commits to establishing, with key partners, a permanent commemoration of his life and work in the form of an Annual Nelson Mandela Memorial Lecture during Barnet’s Black History Month on the theme of Community Cohesion and to actively encouraging young people from across Barnet’s diverse community to attend and participate.

Everyone has a Nelson Mandela story today: so here is mine.

Many of the commenters leaping on twitter to post their tributes on the passing of this great man have grown up in a world where apartheid was a part of history, as distant as the idea of slavery, or the fight for women's suffrage. 

My own children, born just after the release of Nelson Mandela from prison, hardly believe me when I tell them that at their age, friends of mine in South Africa who had a different colour skin were not allowed to sit on the same bus as a white person, or eat in the same restaurant, or go to the same school, or restaurant. 

My children have grown up in a multicultural society, where race and colour are, at least to them, irrelevant. But when I think back to the way things were when I was their age, it comes as a sharp reminder of how recently the change came about and how fragile is the structure of law and hard won protections of so many basic freedoms and rights that their generation takes for granted.

For my generation, the fight against apartheid was a moral duty, a measurement of political commitment: an awakening of political consciousness. For me, anyway, from a suburban middleclass, Telegraph reading home, that is how my political senses were awoken. 

A fellow student on my journalism course was a South African, of Indian descent, who had been imprisoned for months without trial after taking part in a student uprising. 

Yunus had left the country within hours of being told he was to be re-arrested - grabbing a suitcase of clothes too big for him from a friend's shop, the ANC got him out of the country and into the UK on a UN sponsored student visa. He arrived here traumatised, deeply suspicious of his fellow students, and slow to accept that the white middle class young people he was with saw him on an equal basis, and were not his enemies.

Slowly he unwound, and began what he saw as his mission to raise the political consciousness of his friends to what was happening in his country. He would turn up on the doorstep, clutching copies of the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, treatises on Marxist theory, literature from the United Nations about infant mortality in the townships. The life he described, with its unimaginably divisive barriers, and regulations imposing separation of peoples on the basis of colour and ethnicity, the violent suppression of protest, the injustices of institutionalised poverty and lack of education, was terrible, and the wider implications it raised, once seen, could never be unseen. 

While there is still injustice in the world, no one with any decency can ever turn away, but has the moral duty to fight it. 

Of course the issue of apartheid, and the test of morality that it posed, could result in an entirely different result in those of a less finely tuned political sensitivity. 

Yes: let's talk about our friends in the Conservative party, many of whom are now falling over themselves to pull sad faces and mourn the loss of a great world leader, vilified by their own party when he was imprisoned, but celebrated as soon as he came to power.

David Cameron: "A great light has gone out in the world. Nelson Mandela was a hero of our time." 

Cameron apologised in 2006 for the shameful record of the Conservative party in supporting and sustaining apartheid, and its refusal to apply sanctions against the regime which imposed a system of institutionalised cruelty and degradation on so many of its own citizens over so many decades. 

But Cameron himself was happy enough, in 1989, when Nelson Mandela was still imprisoned, to avail himself of the opportunity to visit South Africa, all expenses paid, by a lobbying company that opposed sanction, enjoying a  'fact finding tour' that his then boss says was offered on the basis that 'The Botha regime was trying to make itself look less horrible'.

Some activists in the Conservative Party at the time were open in their detestation of the man whose loss the party now claims to mark with such reverence. Members of the 'Federation of Conservative Students' were happy to wear 'Hang Mandela' badges. 

In 1987 PM and Finchley MP Margaret Thatcher famously declared that ' the ANC is a typical terrorist organisation'. Her colleague Norman Tebbit also referred to Mandela as a 'terrorist', and her staunch supporter, MP Teddy Taylor, even suggested that he should be shot. 

Denis Thatcher had extensive investments in South Africa, of course, and their son Mark spent a year there in 1972. Margaret and Denis made their own visit in 1973.

Thatcher only brought any support to the ending of apartheid, after almost every other world leader, once it became apparent that cold war paranoia over the global threat of communism was dying, and that apartheid represented a barrier to a free market. By delaying any effective opposition, she stands accused of enabling its survival perhaps for a decade longer than necessary, and condemning millions of South Africans to conditions of intolerable oppression and hardship. And every Conservative who supported her position must accept the same culpability.

Let's look at the view taken by the Mayor of London, as revealed by Adam Bienkov here

 in 1997, Johnson interviewed the former president of apartheid-era South Africa FW de Klerk for the Daily Telegraph. Here’s how he began the article.
“As ye sow, so shall ye reap. Once the Afrikaner discriminated against the black man on the grounds of his colour. Now the boot is on the other foot…”
Later in the interview he added:

“Mandela never accepted the Swiss-style constitution [de Klerk] proposed; and last year, fed up with being marginalised, de Klerk quit the government. He must have known that this would happen, that the majority tyranny of apartheid would be followed by the majority tyranny of black rule.”

The tyranny of black rule?

Closer to home, we have had our own tribute to Madiba from one Tory councillor: right wing councillor Brian Gordon, who, in the 1970s, while the ANC leader was languishing in prison, thought it necessary to call for an end to immigration, as Britain was becoming the 'dustbin of the world' ... and then in 2007 caused offence by attending an event at a care home blacked up as Mandela, and rapping to a bemused audience of elderly residents. 

 Mandela kindly forgave Gordon for his pathetic behaviour, observing, however, that he objected to the suggestion that he would wear a shirt like that. Which serves only to underline the difference between the graciousness of a great man, and the infantile nature of Tory politics, here in Broken Barnet.

My fellow student Yunus, as he always wanted, is now a leading figure in the new South African political establishment. He has held a number of ministerial roles, and is currently the Communications Minister. His loyalty to the ANC is undaunted, and his integrity uncompromised. How many politicians can say the same?

Margaret Thatcher took the long road to Finchley: Mandela followed the long road to freedom. In February 1990, we saw the release from prison, after 27 years, of a great statesman: in November that year we saw the end of the career of Margaret Thatcher. It was a year of deliverance from evil, and one of great celebration. 

In 2013, we said goodbye to both of them, but their legacy lives on: in the case of Mandela, that is one of hope, compassion, tolerance, and forgiveness. In the case of Margaret Thatcher, most of us see only a heritage of hatred, division and selfishness. 

Her successors in government are creating their own version of apartheid: a nation being torn apart by the same ruthless exploitation of an elite, an empire based on racial superiority supplanted by an empire of oligarchy and privilege, where the poor and dispossessed are relegated to the virtual townships of urban Britain, with just as much contempt as anything displayed under the decades of apartheid in South Africa.

Here in Margaret Thatcher's own backyard, her heirs are honouring her memory with their own form of tribute: a refusal to acknowledge the needs of the disadvantaged, a continuing obsession with the values of the market place that has seen all our council services privatised, and support for disabled residents turned into a failing business, created on the principle of creating profit from care.

Former Barnet Tory councillor Brian Coleman is complaining tonight that the suggested meeting to honour Nelson Mandela is 'gesture politics' at its worst.  

They didn't do this for Mrs T, he whinges. 

Too right, Brian, they didn't. Ask yourself why.

Thatcher, on taking office, took a solemn vow, which she proceeded to dishonour, with ruthless efficiency, throughout the course of her time in office:

Where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. And where there is despair, may we bring hope.

And where she failed, Mandela delivered, with compassion, dignity and great courage.

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow

The real difference between Thatcher and Mandela is in these words: between the idea, and the reality - the difference between a politician, and a great statesman.



Lesley said...

Thank you Mrs Angry for a brilliant and moving article - one of the best pieces of writing in the ocean of tributes to the great man that it has been my privilege to read.

Mrs Angry said...

Oh, that's very kind, thank you.

SteveL said...

You may be interested to know that Eleanor Kasirils lived in Barnet in the 1980s, bringing up her children on the salary of lab assistant a Hampstead comprehensive in cricklewood, while her husband Ronnie hid in Zimbabwe leading the ANC's armed wing. After the ANC was voted in, Ronnie went on the be in the cabinet -the representative of the Communist party -and visible in the photos of the closest comrades of Mandela present at the funeral.

sadly, Eleanor was not by his side, having died in 2009.

Barnet should treasure its history: while Thatcher in Finchley was denouncing the terrorists, other Barnet residents were a key part achieving Mandela's freedom and the peace that followed.

Steve: a friend of the kids

Mrs Angry said...

You are right, Steve: I'm glad to say that there will at least be a special council meeting in January to commemorate Mandela's passing, in the room where Thatcher used to sit triumphantly on election nights, while he sat waiting for his freedom, in a prison cell on Robben Island.

Mrs Angry said...

NB - I believe Oliver Tambo lived not far away, just over the Barnet border, in Muswell Hill - I used to work sometimes with someone who went out with his daughter ..