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Obituary: Nelson Mandela (1918-2013)

AN HONOUR: Nelson Mandela and former Voice journalist Joseph Harker

TWO DECADES on, the highlight of my journalism career remains my interview with Nelson Mandela, three months after his release from Victor Verster prison.

It was May 1990, and we met in the Johannesburg headquarters of his African National Congress (ANC) party.

The first thing that struck me about him was his height – he was over 6 foot tall – his confident, upright posture, and his very firm handshake.

For a man of 72 years old, who’d just spent 27 years in prison, he really was in remarkably good shape.

I remember feeling immediately that this was a man who really could live up to the hopes that the nation, if not the world, had trusted in him.

Straight away I gave him a copy of the Voice newspaper of 13 February 1990 which had recorded his release.

Editing that edition had been another unforgettable experience.

In those days the paper came out each Tuesday, but we normally wrapped it up on the Saturday, before it went up to our printers on Sunday for distribution around the country on Monday (no internet or social media in those days!).

But on Saturday afternoon, February 10, came the news that Mandela was to be released the following day.

I immediately called up our reporters – Clare Hynes, Diran Adebayo and Heenan Bhatti – who, along with our design and production team, were all happy to give up their Sunday for such a historic story.

And in that one day we produced a five-page special edition with, on the cover, a close-up shot of Mandela walking to freedom with his right hand clenched in the air. “Free at last” declared our headline in massive type.

Richard Adeshiyan, our deputy editor, was in that day too, but his day was mostly taken up leading our coverage of the other huge story of that day – the overnight knockout of the “invincible” Mike Tyson by the previously unknown boxer Buster Douglas.

That night I drove the bromide originals of the paper up to our printers in Lincolnshire (again, no internet!) and stayed up all night while they made the metal plates and printed it off the following morning.

As the first editions rolled off the presses I scooped them up, and drove them back down to our offices in Brixton, where I proudly showed them off to our staff - who were still buzzing, like black people everywhere, from the excitement of Mandela’s release. That issue was a great team effort – from journalists to the design and layout team, to our typesetters and printers.

And for a paper which was then just eight years old, it proved how much potential we had to make a real difference. It’s no coincidence that over the following months and years the Voice’s sales soared.

Three months later the editor, Steve Pope, sent me to South Africa for a month-long assignment, to follow up on the impact of Mandela’s freedom. And so it was that I came to be in the ANC party HQ.

At the time the country’s future was uncertain. It was by no means clear whether there would be any kind of meaningful handover of power at all – let alone a peaceful one – from the minority apartheid regime to the country’s black majority.

Violence was flaring in South Africa’s Natal region, where gangs affiliated to Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s Inkatha movement were attacking anti-apartheid supporters, killing hundreds at a time.

I asked Mandela if he had a timetable for change. He wouldn’t be drawn. Five years? He still wouldn’t say. And when I asked if he’d like to see the kind of mass mobilisation of protesters which had, a year earlier, brought a sudden end to the regimes across Eastern Europe, he simply said: “We are not comparing ourselves with any other part of the world."

I remember at the time feeling a little frustrated because, having seen the brutal injustices of apartheid, I wanted the regime swept away as quickly as possible.

But today, years later, I see that he had a plan; and that his age and wisdom had given him the patience to see what was best for his country in the long term.

Was South Africa, after years of schoolkids boycotting classes - resulting in a generation without education - ready for a complete and immediate handover of power?

And over the following years, with various conflicts in the wake of the Soviet union’s collapse – from Bosnia to Armenia to Chechnya - it became clear that the ideal of "freedom" did not necessarily bring hope, and certainly not peace.

In fact, Mandela was at pains to tell me that, despite their decades of racist privilege, South African’s whites were still crucial to the nation’s future. “They have an important role to play,” he said. “They have the advantages of education opportunities, are highly qualified and skilled, therefore they are crucial to the further development of this country in all spheres. We need their cooperation.” And he continued: “We have stopped thinking in terms of Blacks and Whites. We are thinking in terms of all South Africans.”

Hearing his words now, I can’t help recalling the same message of unity being put forward in 2004 by the then junior senator Barack Obama, who told the Democratic party congress that it shouldn’t think in terms of “red states, and blue states” [ie, Republican and Democrat] but of the “United States”.

As it turned out, exactly four years after our meeting in Johannesburg, Mandela became president of South Africa after being voted in by a huge majority in the country’s first ever free elections.

The intervening years had seen much bloodshed, many stalled negotiations, and many deliberate attempts to derail the whole transition process. But despite his years, Mandela had the vision, and the physical and mental strength, to overcome the obstacles, and then to serve his five-year term as head of state. He handed over a nation united – which was a significant achievement given its bloody history.

This required intelligence and a strategic mind – and a man prepared to lead by example. He did this most symbolically by wearing a Springboks shirt when congratulating the national rugby team on winning the 1995 rugby world cup (rugby was a predominantly white sport in the country and had been hit by the sporting boycott which had isolated South Africa in the 1970s and 80s).

But in addition to his national leadership, Mandela became a global voice for justice – he backed Neville and Doreen Lawrence after their son was murdered, at a time when the police and the British establishment were against them. He spoke out against the invasion of Iraq; against the way the west keeps the developing world in poverty; and for those suffering from Aids.

Looking back now on his impact, I still can’t help feeling that South Africa’s whites got off lightly given their long collective oppression of the country’s black majority. I’d like to have seen a more robust effort to redress the sharp racial inequalities, which still afflict the country today.

But without doubt Mandela’s legacy was to create a country which remained stable, is now an established democracy, whose overall economy is now prospering, and which was confident and capable enough to host the glorious football world cup of 2010.

His country, and the world, is immeasurably better for his 95 years with us.

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela born July 18, 1918, died aged 95.

Presidential term: May 10, 1994-June 14, 1999

Place of Birth: Mvezo, South Africa

Children: Makaziwe Mandela, Zindziswa Mandela, Makgatho Mandela, Zenani Mandela, Madiba Thembekile Mandela

Spouse: Graça Machel: 1998-present, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela : 1958–1996, Evelyn Mase: 1944–1958

Education: University of South Africa (1943), Healdtown Comprehensive School, University of the Witwatersrand, University of London International Programmes, University of London, University of Fort Hare

Awards: Mandela has received more than 150 awards notebly Nobel Peace Prize in 1993

Before his presidency, Mandela was an anti-apartheid activist and leader of the African National Congress and its armed wing Umkhonto we Sizwe.

Mandela spent 27 years in prison – Robben Island and Pollsmoor Prison – on convictions for crimes that included sabotage committed while he spearheaded the struggle against apartheid.

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