The link between Glasgow and Mandela reaches its 30th anniversary
August 4th, 1981: Nelson Mandela is granted freedom of the city of Glasgow. Mandela, at this point in time, had already served nineteen years in prison. And he would serve a further eight and a half before he was released. Glasgow was the first city to bestow such an honour on Mandela. However, ‘honour’ isn’t quite the right word. The act was a display of solidarity. At once a hand of friendship reached out to the imprisoned man, and a strong challenge to those who would demonise Mandela and the ANC. Many people, both at home and abroad, considered the organisation to be a terrorist group. And, regrettably, there were scores who were apathetic to the struggle going on within South Africa. Glasgow however, took a leading role in the anti-apartheid movement.
Branches supporting the movement were active throughout the sixties, and the seventies saw the formation of the Scottish Committee of the Anti-Apartheid Movement. The body met in Edinburgh and Glasgow before taking a final home in Glasgow in 1987, and dissolved in 1994. During its lifetime, the committee organised boycotts and campaigns to raise awareness. It was part of the fabric of the movement that lead to the eventual release of Mandela and the abolition of apartheid.
Adding their voice to the movement, Glasgow City Council were not afraid or ashamed to confront opposition; a fact exemplified by their most enduring act…
It has now been twenty-five years since St George’s Place was renamed Nelson Mandela Place. This was a highly controversial decision; firstly, because many people did not know who Mandela was. Secondly – and this is wonderfully audacious – St George’s Place was the home of the South African consulate. Suddenly the consulate’s authority was undermined by their own address.
The move was bold-faced cheek and a stern rebuke against the South African government. A perfect blend of satire and political action. It is safe to presume that the consulate didn’t adopt the new address for their letterheads… In fact, much of the mail directed to the consulate still bore its defunct address. Every letter and packet became politically charged. The sender could display his or her allegiance with a single line of address.
Mandela was released from prison in 1990 and in 1993, he came to Glasgow to collect the freedom of nine British cities. Addressing a crowd of 10,000 people in George Square he said, ‘The people of Glasgow were the first in the world to confer on me the Freedom of the City at a time when I and my comrades in the ANC were imprisoned on Robben Island serving life sentences which, in apartheid South Africa, then meant imprisonment until death.’
It is perhaps strange for us now to think of these things. Our generation were only children when Mandela said these words. We have to make an effort to remember that it wasn’t until the following year, when Mandela was elected as President of South Africa, that apartheid was abolished in the country.
Apartheid had been in place as state policy since 1948. It was a system of national racial segregation – highly discriminatory and unapologetic in its prejudices. In 1970, any kind of non-white political representation was abolished and black people began to lose their citizenship. They were robbed of their voices.
Just by contemplating these facts, we inwardly rail at the injustice. And yet, we pass the plaque bearing the name “NELSON MANDELA PLACE” without thinking about what it means. The power of the message has been diluted and forgotten. We have consigned the whole messy sequence of events to history.
Cities across the globe have parks and plazas and boardrooms named after Nelson Mandela. It is such a common name that we hardly notice it. Millions of people have watched “Only Fools and Horses” without batting an eyelid at the name of the Trotter’s high-rise tower-block. Nelson Mandela House. It’s a deliciously ironic use of the name; but also a key example of how Mandela’s name has been emptied of so much of its original power and meaning.
We must strive to remember. Glasgow must remember. Its place in the history of freeing Mandela is one of the city’s proudest moments. Former Lord Provost Michael Kelly said recently, “It was the only thing that we could say was genuinely part of a world movement and Glasgow had taken a lead on it.” Imagine Nelson Mandela sitting in his tiny cell. He is wondering if he has been forgotten. He is imagining the allegations of criminality that are being circulated unchecked. He hears through some channel that there is a city that will welcome him. There is a whole city behind him. And then another. And then another.
It must be said that even before 1981 Mandela had received a few honours. (A handful of student unions had made him “Honorary President” and “Honorary Life Member”.) But Glasgow extending the ‘key to the city’ to a man who was behind bars at the time was the first instance of a whole city standing up in solidarity and defiance. Glasgow opened the floodgates. Rome followed. Then Olympia. These legendary cities were following us. We must remember. And then we must ask: Is it enough to remember?