February can be a chilly month and if my memory serves me correctly it was indeed very cold as we gathered outside the South African Embassy in Trafalgar Square to celebrate the release of Nelson Mandela on 11 February 1990.
These days you have more chance of finding someone who believes the earth is flat than you have of finding someone who believes Nelson Mandela should have been kept in jail till he died.
How times change. When I was a student at Leeds University in the 1980s there were plenty of folk who believed Mandela was a terrorist who should spend the rest of his life behind bars. Worse, the Federation of Conservative Students had T-shirts printed proclaiming ‘Hang Mandela’.
As Mandela walked free from Victor Verster Prison in Cape Town the long distance media lenses caught site of an imposing erect figure. A little stiff in his movements perhaps, but with his fist clenched and raised.
Had he been broken in prison? Had he sold out? Not a bit of it. As he spoke to the world for the first time in more than a quarter of a century, he pointedly picked up where he had left off:
“In conclusion I wish to quote my own words during my trial in 1964. They are true today as they were then:
“'I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.'”
Five months later in July he came to London for the first time since his release. Expectations in the anti-apartheid community were high. For the staff of the Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM) in which I worked the anticipation of meeting our icon was feverish.
Mandela and his delegation ended up staying in The Churchill Hotel where ironically De Klerk, the leader of South Africa’s Nationalist Party and the last white president, had stayed some 13 months earlier. Then we had been unwanted protesters outside, now we were invited guests inside.
Arriving at the door to Mandela’s suite of rooms with my colleague Mike Terry, the Executive Secretary of the AAM, we knocked and the door swung open to reveal the striking figure of Winnie Mandela. She embraced us and ushered us in. Half a dozen of Mandela’s entourage introduced themselves and we all sat down on comfy sofas and armchairs around a coffee table.
“Madiba is resting” Winnie informed us, “he may join us later” and nodded toward a half open bedroom door. Meanwhile the organisational meeting proceeded and the agenda for the next few days was finalised.
Sitting next to Mike I discovered if I leaned back into the sofa I could see through the half open bedroom door and there was a pair of feet. Mandela’s feet.
As the meeting drew to a close it became increasingly clear that we were not going to meet the resting Mandela, at least not that day.
Descending in the lift Mike said to me, “But you did see his feet didn’t you?” “Yes”, I grinned.
Arriving back at 13 Mandela Street, Camden, headquarters of the AAM, the staff clustered round excitedly as we entered.
“Did you meet Mandela?” they all wanted to know.
Mike and I looked at each other and laughed.
“Well …”, I said to much amusement, “We saw his feet!