By Amnesty’s Clare Fermont based in Johannesburg, South Africa
Even though I’d been expecting news of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela’s death, it still shocked me when the radio in my Johannesburg flat solemnly announced the news late last night.
Mandela has always seemed part of my life. As a teenager in the late 1960s in north London, I’d been close friends with the exiled family of Denis Goldberg, the only white defendant in the 1964 Rivonia trial that condemned him, Mandela and other ANC leaders to life imprisonment.
That friendship made me understand the cruelty and injustice of apartheid, and inspired me to my first activism. I joined anti-apartheid protests and stood outside the South African embassy in central London, forlornly denouncing the evils of the most unashamedly racist government.
As the years went by, the slogan “Free Nelson Mandela” became louder and louder as he came to symbolise the rising struggle in South Africa that was happening in the townships and workplaces beyond his prison walls.
In 1989, I went to South Africa for the first time as part of the solidarity campaign for Moses Mayekiso, a black trade unionist on trial for treason, a capital offence. After 20 years of campaigning, I thought I understood the evils of apartheid. I had not. It was only when I was with friends and couldn’t enter the same buildings, use the same transport, even walk on the same beaches, that I fully appreciated the obscenity of the system.
The acquittal of Moses was one of the signals that apartheid was crumbling and that Mandela was soon to be free. Back in London, what celebrations there were when Mandela ended his long walk to freedom!
On the streets of Johannesburg
And now, here I am in Johannesburg, surrounded by people mourning his death and celebrating his life.
All day I have been asking people what Mandela meant to them, particularly activists. Almost universally, the responses have included reference to qualities that have come to symbolise Mandela – forgiveness, honesty, generosity of spirit, determination, bravery.
In a South Africa that is mired by corruption and has yet to conquer appalling economic inequalities, these sentiments have a strong resonance – and offer enormous hope.
At lunchtime I walked the 45 minutes from the Amnesty office to Mandela’s house. As I approached it, the usually deserted pavements became increasingly packed with people of every age, colour and religion, all carrying flowers or pictures of “Madiba”.
Many were walking in groups that included people of different colours. I saw a Jewish family walking side by side with a Muslim family, all chatting away. This is the legacy of Mandela, I thought.
As I mingled with the singing, toy-toying crowd outside the house, everyone was keen to explain why they wanted to pay tribute to Mandela and how he had inspired them.
A young woman who’d arrived with many others behind a South African Police Service banner proclaiming “16 days of activism for no violence against women and children” told me: “Of course Madiba inspired me. Without him, I’d never have had the courage or even thought to become involved in campaigning to stop violence against women.”
A man who worked with youth groups in Soweto said: “Mandela showed me that we all have a part to play in making our country great, and that nothing changes unless people stand up and do something.”
“I was so afraid when Mandela was freed as I thought we might be massacred,” an elderly white woman told me. “But he made sure that didn’t happen. That’s why I’m here today.”
That Mandela’s legacy will continue to inspire a new generation of activists seems clear. “I want to be like Madiba,” said a girl, aged 13 or 14, also from Soweto. “I want to be good, and make South Africa a better place to live in. I think that is how I can honour him.”
Nelson Mandela was one of the best known political prisoners of our time. But throughout the world, thousands continue to languish in jail because of their political views. You can help them by joining Write for Rights, which launched today. Share your thoughts about Nelson Mandela and sign our petition to release another political prisoner.