When I heard about the passing of Nelson Mandela I was in a pub on Great Western Road. A pal of my girlfriend was leaving for Australia and we had gathered to wish him farewell. While waiting to be served at the bar I quickly checked my facebook, as people often do these days. There I found innumerable statuses all saying the same thing. Nelson Mandela R.I.P.
News of such magnitude travels almost instantaneously across the globe. At the click of a button we can acquire information and analysis on almost any issue anywhere in the world. Massive media corporations, Twitter feeds and blogs, covering the entire political spectrum are all within our grasp. From Dundee to Dakar, Tehran to Tokyo, information can travel fast and the world is small.
This was not the case in 1981 when, against the prevailing rhetoric of the media and the government who frequently decried him as a terrorist and a criminal, the City of Glasgow became the first to award Mandela the Freedom of the City.
This gesture was, of course, only symbolic. But in any struggle symbols have enormous power and Glasgow’s actions were the first shouts in what became a cacophony of support where previously there had been only complicit silence. In the weeks and months that followed a petition calling for his release gained irresistible momentum, being signed by representatives from over two and a half thousand cities throughout the world and eventually being granted the approval of the United Nations.
Having awarded him the Freedom of the City Glasgow had already made a considerable contribution to the way Mandela was perceived in the United Kingdom and Europe but two years later the city had yet another symbolic gesture to offer.
In 1986 a South African consulate could be found in Glasgow. It resided on the fifth floor of the Stock Exchange building in St George’s Place, just off Buchanan Street in the city centre. By now it was much less controversial to be a Mandela supporter even though many in politics clung to the view that he was nothing but trouble. The city of Glasgow decided that it should lend yet further weight to the already considerable pressure building on the racist South African government and so it decided that St George’s Place was due for a name change. Amidst much fanfare, a new plaque was erected bearing the name of the world most famous political prisoner.
In 1993, three years after his release from prison and one year before he would become the first black president of South Africa, he visited Glasgow and thanked the people of the city. Addressing the city from the chambers in George Square, he said “While we were physically denied our freedom in the country of our birth, a city six thousand miles away, and as renowned as Glasgow, refused to accept the legitimacy of the apartheid system, and declared us to be free”.
Six thousand miles. A vast difference, not only geographically but culturally as well. The barriers such a distance creates are vast, but Glasgow’s solidarity with a man at the southern tip of a vast continent, far from our northern outpost, proves they are not insurmountable.
Since this is being published in a student magazine at the University of Glasgow, chances are Glasgow is now, or was once, your home. Maybe only temporarily, maybe you’ve been here all your life or maybe you’ve decided you like it and don’t plan on leaving. Whatever your relationship with the Glasgow, you should take enormous pride in the stance our city took. Glasgow told the world that, for this city, injustice visited upon yourself, your neighbour or a whole people six thousand miles away can not be tolerated. But while you should take immeasurable pride in this tale, remember also it isn’t the whole story.
Even as I type this, Glaswegians are gathering in Nelson Mandela Place to say goodbye to a giant of our age. We must always allow his and the people of South Africa’s triumph inspire us. Inspire us to banish injustice and inequality wherever we find it. Inspire us to welcome to the city those who have been cast out from their own. Inspire us to make our city one which Mandela would still be proud of. For the small gestures that Glasgow gave Mandela, we must allow his story- and the story of those men and women who struggled with him- to give us so much more.