There’s nothing I can add to the tributes to Nelson Mandela that have been made in recent days, culminating in his memorial service in South Africa. But it’s very hard to imagine anyone who’s been locked up for 27 years and then emerges to worldwide acclaim and support not looking to get back at his captors in some way. It was that focus on negotiation and reconciliation with those that might have been his enemies that marked him out as great.
It gives some satisfaction to know that the UK was active in the anti-apartheid movement that led to global sanctions, Mandela’s release and the ultimate end to the regime. Support was not always official – the Thatcher government maintained that he was a terrorist throughout – but popular support for the movement, of which Peter Hain was a prominent figure, held sway.
I remember it well. While a young student at a small northern college I made my own pathetic gesture against the 1969-1970 Springbok rugby tour. But the Stop the Seventy Tour campaign, of which Peter Hain was chairman, caused major disruption to the South African team’s visit and resulted in sporting isolation for the country. That hurt the sports-loving nation.
It’s hard, now, to remember the strength of feeling that apartheid raised for many years and the protests and demonstrations in the UK against the regime, but if you were there then the memory lives on. The involvement of Barclays bank in South Africa, for example, led to a student boycott and I’m probably not the only person that has never been in a branch of the bank since.
Hain played a significant role in raising awareness and organising protests, for which he doesn’t get as much credit as he deserves, at least from some quarters. And it was at no little risk to himself. He was once sent a letter bomb (which failed to go off) and was also acquitted on a bank robbery charge, allegedly framed by the South African Bureau of State Security.
At least he must have got some satisfaction this week in Parliament when he told it like it was – who among the politicians and parties of the day supported the anti-apartheid movement and the release of the ANC’s leader and who were against it. There were some shamed faces in the House. The fact is that if it hadn’t been for Peter Hain, others like him and the mass support they generated, Nelson Mandela may never have had the opportunity to show how great he was.