by Rob Marchant
With the thousands of pieces being written around the world about the death of a political giant, this is not about the great man himself – there are plenty of people better-qualified to write that one.
But it’s worth pausing to think about Mandela’s relationship with Labour.
Like many, I grew up in the late 1970s and 1980s constantly hearing about some or other horrific injustice from apartheid South Africa on the 6 o’clock news. We were too young for the Sharpeville massacre or the imprisonment of Mandela himself, but not too young to learn of the death of Steve Biko in police custody. In fact, you had only to listen to switch on Radio One – Peter Gabriel’s “Biko”, Little Steven’s “I Ain’t Gonna Play Sun City” or The Specials’ “Free Nelson Mandela” – to be aware of what was going on.
It’s probably fair to say that one of the things which made me realise that it was Labour, and not the Tories, that would be my party of choice was the fact that the Tories seemed perfectly content with tolerating a regime where black people were not valued the same as white people. In 1985, Margaret Thatcher was rather dragged kicking and screaming into agreeing limited sanctions against the all-white Botha regime, whilst black citizens were still not eligible to vote. Others in her party continued to resist even that token action.
Different reasons appealed to the Tories for why it was best not to upset the applecart with Pretoria. There was, of course, the odd not-very-nice Tory who had business interests to protect, or simply a quasi-identification with the idea of blacks as second-class citizens. But more common were those who had not yet experienced the fall of communism and genuinely thought that “engagement” was the way to gradually improve things; or – a little less forgivably – that we should not interfere in “foreign cultures” which we didn’t understand.