Two of the ‘greats’ who shaped modern South Africa were Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela. Both fought tirelessly against apartheid but it was Mandela, whose struggle led to 26 years in prison and whose influence was the greater, who I admired the most. In keeping, when Tutu died a few weeks ago, after I had reflected on his key contribution as the Chair of the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, my thoughts turned to the achievements of Mandela. Ultimately I settled on the day he was released from jail. This blog is about that day – Sunday 11 February 1990 – and what we (myself and my two youngest sons) did to celebrate.
At breakfast that Sunday there was no hint of the tumultuous event to come. It was sunny and dry and unseasonably warm. With Rohan away at a conference in Wales, I was looking after the children with nothing much planned apart from walks and meals.
It was a phone call from Rohan that changed everything. The conference organisers – the Labour Party – had just learned that Mandela would be released at two o’clock that afternoon. In response, they had decided to hold an impromptu celebratory rally in Trafalgar Square – the challenge now was to attract participants. In response to their request, Rohan called to ask if I (and the children) could possibly go to the Square to swell the crowds and also if I would phone ten, like-minded, friends to tell them of the event and urge them both to go along and to pass on the message. Of course I agreed; Mandela was a hero of ours for whom we had been on many rallies and demonstrations to support his release. Going to a gathering in central London to celebrate his liberation was a must.
While responding to Rohan’s request to attend was easy, for me, just being there would not be enough. I realised that the venue offered a wonderful opportunity for a grander celebratory gesture – why not re-name Nelson’s Column, Mandela’s Column for the day? After all, at seven years old, Mandela himself was named after the Admiral by his primary school teacher who saw his given name – Rolihlahla – as not only difficult to pronounce but also likely to attract problems – colloquially it meant ‘troublemaker’!
The task now was how to make a ‘Mandela’s Column’ banner – obviously it would need print large enough to be read by those at a distance. A plan was hatched. Joshua, Oliver and I would drive to the Square taking with us three long slats of wood, a hammer, some broad-headed nails, a pair of pliers (in case), a half-full tin of dark green paint – left over from painting the front door – a large paint brush and an old white sheet.
When we arrived the Square was not yet full which left space on the paving stones for us to build the banner and paint the message in situ. The sheet was soon fixed on to its three-strut frame and next came the challenge of the graphics. The words of our slogan had to be clear, large and legible and there would be no room for mistakes. Everything had to be right the first time and for me, as someone dyslexic, that meant trouble. Indeed, for a few moments I froze as I stood with the children uncertain about the spelling of ‘column’ and ‘Mandela’.
With the paralysis over and our work completed, the three of us were helped up on to the column’s plinth to display our banner (see illustration) and soon we were surrounded by others and the cheering began. Soon there was silence as the now large crowd waited apprehensively for Big Ben to strike two. It did, but apart from muted clapping the Square remained eerily quiet; the problem was that the portable radios in the audience that were reporting events from outside the Victor Verster Prison near Cape Town, endlessly repeated how Mandela had not yet appeared.
After about fifteen, nerve-wracking minutes, the radios broadcast the news that his besuited frame had just walked through the prison gates and waves of glee erupted across a packed Square. Being there celebrating was unforgettable.
But the afternoon’s events were not quite over. Soon after Mandela’s release, dignitaries began to line up to speak to us from a quickly assembled platform. Amongst those there to address us was the former Labour Minister Tony (Anthony Wedgwood) Benn. In response to Rohan’s request to phone like minds and to seek support for the demonstration, some hours earlier I had spoken to Benn and at the time he knew nothing of Mandela’s imminent release. Now, a few hours later, he was here at his eloquent best – Rohan’s phone scheme had worked!
For help writing the blog I would like to thank Martin, Rohan and Vivien.
The illustration shows a photo of our quickly-constructed banner unfurled at the base of Nelson’s Column on Sunday 11 February 1990. With me standing holding it on the left and Joshua on the right, Oliver can be seen sitting on the plinth cheering. The photo, which was taken by a Daily Mirror reporter was published next day in his paper in black and white. Reference to the scene was also made in next day’s Daily Telegraph.