I joined the Anti Apartheid Movement as a student. It was a movement particularly well understood by multi-cultural London where, despite the universal right to vote, racial discrimination was rife and there were no laws to prevent it.
For the radical youth of my generation the causes were inseparable, justice at home and abroad.
Today’s young people cannot imagine a country where a minority of white people control the majority black population though a legal system that prohibited any contact between the races both in private and in public life. The whites controlled where black people lived and where they worked. They had to carry identity passes at all times. They were, of course, not allowed to vote.
“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.” He wasn’t sentenced to death but spent a total of 27 years in prison. In 2001 I visited Robben Island and Mandela’s former cell. It was a chilling experience. I could not conceive of anyone surviving such confinement.
The British government under Margaret Thatcher continued to support the regime, while the Labour party urged a boycott. I can proudly say that I never bought a South African product nor knowingly drank a glass of South African wine until black South Africans got the vote.
Along with thousands of others I demonstrated for years outside South Africa House. When I became an MP, Mandela was still a prisoner but things were changing. After his release he came to London to thank anti-apartheid activists and spoke at a private meeting of Labour MPs. It was utterly thrilling to be in the presence of such an inspirational and iconic figure.
I was but a foot soldier in the movement, but like millions throughout the world my life was touched by the magic that was Mandela.
After generations of oppression it was extraordinary that Nelson Mandela emerged from prison still committed to bringing about a peaceful transition to a non-racial democratic South Africa.
He set the greatest standard of integrity and courage in public office and taught us all the power of diplomacy and reconciliation.
For him the highest ideals were democracy and equality. I just wish they could be as valued in Britain today.