If you expected me to write ‘when I met Nelson Mandela..’ then I’m sorry, you’re going to be disappointed. I’m disappointed too as I would have loved to have met this great man. Words cannot fulfil my admiration for the fight, the stance and the sincere humility of this global statesman that billions of us have witnessed.
My brushes with apartheid will probably not come across as earth shattering to you - but to me they were. And I share them just to convey that many small acts can result in something quite magnificent.
At one point in my career, I was responsible for organising the undergraduate medical tutorials, ward teachings etc., at Leeds University and, perhaps surprisingly, this is where my first brush with apartheid occurred. The University had just taken on it’s first South African Research Fellow in Cardiology and part of his contract was to undertake some clinical teaching duties. On his first morning with us, during our mid-week meeting, he was offered a coffee. He left it on the table. He chose to remain standing. After the meeting I asked him if he would like some tea, assuming he might prefer that to coffee. He asked me if I was having one and when I said no, he said ‘then I will please’. That seemed a strange answer.. it’s usually ‘if you’re having one I’ll have one’ ! But not on that occasion and that is because I am white and he was black. He had difficulty in drinking or eating with other people who were white. This seemed unbelievable. Later he asked me where the loo was ‘for people like me’. I was truly shocked. Later that day I shared my experience with a colleague. We could not believe that such laws existed - this was the 70s after all ! We had survived the swinging 60s so surely there was nothing left to battle ! How wrong we were ! We were ignorant and clearly not at all wordly wise. We quickly read up on South Africa ! After some time I’m pleased to say that as a result of many kindnesses shown to him, our Research Fellow settled into his job and shared our lives. He extended his stay and then went on to the USA. He didn’t think he could settle back in SA under apartheid. What a loss to that country !
That summer, during a visit to London, I happened to meet Bishop Trevor Huddleston. He was very engaging - we shared mutual friends. He’d just returned from South Africa. My ears picked up and I told him of my experience with our Research Fellow. He confirmed how restrictive movement was for the black South African community and gave me further examples - their lives were complicated, often victims of brutality and all in all their lives sounded horrendous. Trevor then told me about Soweto and the living conditions that black people were subjected to. I really had no idea. There was no internet back then ! I remember that instead of going to bed having had a wonderful evening, I went to bed and cried. How could this be allowed to happen.. ? When I got back to Leeds some of us began an appeal to send medicines and bandages to Soweto.
My next career move was to Leeds City Council. During the interview I was asked what I knew about LCC. I said that I’d read they had decided to take a stand against apartheid, which I applauded. I was successful in my application and during my time there I was asked to draw up a list of imports from South Africa. Remember, there was no internet back in the 80s - it was not such an easy task ! But I was determined and drew up a list of mainly foods the UK imported and then presented this to a committee. This would have a marked effect as there were many schools, nurseries, children’s homes, elderly person’s homes.. etc The Government of the day had decided not to boycott goods from South Africa and a group called Local Authorities Against Apartheid was established - they actively boycotted South African products. Much of this went hand in hand with what Labour was doing too and also campaigned for the release of Nelson Mandela and for majority rule in SA. Mandela was released from prison in 1990 and we know the rest ! When Nelson Mandela visited the UK in 2001, he visited Leeds. Thousands turned out. Unfortunately I was away on holiday - hardly good timing !
So having shockingly discovered apartheid by hearing first hand from those who had lived and worked in South Africa, I had actually been given the opportunity in a very small way to bring it to an end. I was just a small cog in a very big wheel but I feel privileged to have been given that small piece of work. I feel I can say ‘I did something’.
We have been lucky - we have witnessed the life and magnificent examples that the irrepressible Nelson Mandela has gifted to us. One of his strongest beliefs was in equality. As we look around us, and see what’s happening within our society, I’d like to think that’s something we can all hang onto and try to bring about. Respect and determination can work wonders !