What Mandela meant to me…

Nelson Mandela - LSE, public domain
Nelson Mandela

In memory of Nelson Mandela, Warwick political scientists and theorists reflect on why he mattered to them, and still does now.

My first Indian passport had a stamp in it which said – ‘Valid for all countries except Israel and South Africa’. This was 1982 and India’s support for the two causes of freedom – the Palestinians and the Black South Africans – was clear and staunch. Today, the support for the Palestinians has withered away in the face of the changing political landscape in India, even as I am reminded of what Mandela said about this issue – ‘We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of Palestinians’.

Mandela was an internationalist and the links that he made between different struggles against injustice across the world shows that. In the outpouring of grief across the world at the passing of Mandela, he has often been spoken of as a saint – Indians already have their own saint in Gandhi, so the tributes in India have often made comparisons between the two men. Gandhi started his struggle against racism and un-freedom in South Africa, where many Indians (coloureds) joined the anti-apartheid struggle under the leadership of the ANC. Mandela was aware of this history when he said, “There has been a golden thread that has bound our peoples together for many, many decades – a thread woven during the long, arduous and bitter years of struggle against common enemies: racism, imperialism and colonialism” (Mainstream, New Delhi, June 18, 1994). Both Gandhi and Mandela faced the same dilemma – how does a leader lead a movement into a government. Gandhi (murdered in 1948) didn’t have to struggle with this for long, but Mandela did – not always well either, but always honestly and with the interests of the whole of South Africa at heart. A post-colonial history of both India and South Africa is entwined and leads also to the UK, where the outpouring of accolade and grief has been great, and where I have been a grief stricken bystander during these days of personal reflection of the passing of one the truly great personages of our time.

Shirin Rai


It was 2008 when I went to South Africa for a conference and was amazed by the stories, experiences and the lives of the people I met there. The legacy of Mandela was visible on every corner, on every street. We visited Robben Island like a group of tourists trying to get good pictures rather than letting it all sink in.

However, Cape Town is probably the most humbling experience a Cypriot can get. After 23 years of learning, speaking, reading, sleeping and waking up with the Cyprus “problem” that is over 50 years old, I realised we were nowhere close to the level of forgiveness and acceptance that I saw in Cape Town.

Even though I knew of him, I wanted to really know him, wanted to be inspired by him and wanted to be touched by his stories personally. So started reading about Mandela. A year later, in 2009, we launched the Cyprus Community Media Centre, a bi-communal initiative that supports collaboration, civil society and independent media for reconciliation on the island. We invited the Elders to the grand opening and THEY ACCEPTED! I cannot forget the day we got the good news. My heart was chirping and I was beyond excited, filled with growing anticipation for the day that I was going to meet Mandela. Unfortunately he was feeling too poorly to travel that week, and while the disappointment was undeniable, Desmond Tutu, Jimmy Carter and Lakhdar Brahimi joined us in support of our humble peace-building efforts. I read a poem with them standing next to me that night and Desmond Tutu made jokes about how easy we have it with our ‘problem’ and that we were like spoiled children dragging our feet instead of moving on.

Even though I have now won’t ever get the opportunity to meet him in person, he will continue to inspire many including me for generations to come. RIP Mandela.

Ilke Dagli


New Zealand occupies an odd place in the British imagination – something between a South Sea Island (a term never used in the Pacific, by the way) and a mythical 50s Britain. New Zealanders’ own self-image was not that different: easy-going people who got along with others, who didn’t like making a fuss, and preferred talking about rugby over a barbecue to railing about injustice.

South Africa was partly responsible for changing all that. While there had long been discomfort about apartheid, a tour by the All Blacks to South Africa in 1976 provoked a boycott of the Montreal Olympics by many African nations, something that left many New Zealanders confused, bemused and not a little upset. We were the good guys, just trying to get along with people, right? We didn’t much like it that the South African authorities for a long time refused visas to Maori – didn’t feel like fair play – but we worked away at it and they declared Maori ‘honorary whites’, so that was all ok, then.

Then in 1981 a tour by the South African team tore the country apart. Families split, mass protests, riot police in the streets. Mild by some standards, deeply traumatic in New Zealand. We grew up a little that year. It was part of what politicised me.  I was 15 and proudly wore my ‘Stop the Tour’ badge at every opportunity. I still have it.

Central to the whole thing was the figure of Nelson Mandela. His image, if nothing else, became a focal point for protest against our collaboration with injustice. Mandela himself was quoted as saying that the “sun came out” on Robben Island when the prisoners heard that a 1981 tour match was stopped by protestors occupying the ground. Years later, when the Free Nelson Mandela movement took off, many in New Zealand were primed and ready to support it, and the song by Coventry’s The Special AKA went to number 1 in the NZ charts. We genuinely celebrated when he was freed – ok, not least because we thought the rugby might start again.

Mandela was part of the reason I became political active. But his example has meant a lot to me ever since, for one simple reason.

He had every reason to hate and chose not to.

John Parkinson

On July 17, 1988, I joined thousands of people on the final leg of the Glasgow to London Mandela Freedom March to its finish in Hyde Park. Desmond Tutu made a passionate plea for Mandela’s release, Julia Fordham performed Happy Ever After, Simple Minds played Mandela Day, and the rally ended with the whole crowd singing Free Nelson Mandela by the Special AKA. It was a day that played a major role in my politicisation and one I will never forget. Fast forward to September 2013 and I’m with a team of PAIS colleagues at King Solomon Academy, one of our outreach partner schools off the Edgware Road in London, giving a talk about politics in music and focusing on the power of that song by the Specials. The whole of Year 9 then learn the song during their music lesson and the orchestra plays and sings it to us as the legacy of Mandela and all he represents is carried forward to another generation. RIP Nelson Mandela!

 Trevor McCrisken


As a kid of the 80’s, the ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ movement was the first political struggle I was really aware of. Yet it wasn’t until much later that I fully grasped the man behind that movement; what he stood for, why he was imprisoned, and just how revolutionary he was in the context of African and global politics.

Most will tell Mandela’s story as one of triumph over the brutality of South Africa’s apartheid regime, of political redemption as South Africa’s first black president, and of elevation in his later years to ‘global statesman’. Some, more spuriously, might claim that it was Western pressure – whether brought about through the political triumph of neoliberalism, or the pop songs, the concerts, and the baggy t-shirts – which secured Mandela’s release and set in motion South Africa’s post-1994 transformation. However, the political struggle of Nelson Mandela is far too important and too complex to be sanitised by the West and reduced to such patronising tributes. Moreover, Mandela’s true legacy must not be allowed to be used to gloss over the global inequality and the social injustice of poverty that persist today.

Such inequality and injustice Mandela raged against. His politics were not the neoliberal politics that continue to be imposed upon Africa by Western elites. Mandela’s politics remained rooted in his activism, his radicalism and his faith. Marxism and Methodism might not be the most obvious of bedfellows but for Mandela they squared a commitment to social justice and equality with righteous anger and conciliatory grace. A champion of the poor, the oppressed and the downtrodden, Mandela called out the obscenity of poverty in a time of “breathtaking advances in science, technology, industry and wealth”. For Mandela, ending poverty was an act of justice, and the protection of a fundamental human right.

As South Africa prepares to say farewell to its father, thoughts will turn to Mandela’s legacy. In his life, Mandela was instrumental in ending the social evil of apartheid, and in doing so changed South Africa and the world. Sadly however, even within his own country, Mandela never saw the end of the other social evil; that of poverty. It would be fitting if in his death, Mandela’s struggle for equality and justice was carried forward with his radicalism and intensity, to end this poverty, wherever in the world it is found.

Dave Webber

In July 1996 the University awarded an honorary degree to Nelson Mandela.  Because a number of universities wanted to award him a degree, the ceremony was held in the gardens of Buckingham Palace where he was staying.   I went as part of the Warwick academic procession.  Oxford gave their degree first which involved a long-winded peroration in Latin by Roy Jenkins.   Sonny Ramphal was then our Chancellor and he had visited Mandela when he was in prison in his then role as secretary-general of the Commonwealth and had been one of the people involved in negotiating his release.   He and Mandela gave each other a great bear hug which was a very joyful moment.   Although I did not meet Mandela, his calm and charismatic presence (and his sense of humour) was very evident.

Wyn Grant

6 thoughts on “What Mandela meant to me…”

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