Nelson Mandela had been released from prison a few years before and in 1994 South Africa was in the approach to the country’s first ever free and democratic elections. In the run up to the vote, Nelson Mandela came to London and met a number of Labour politicians in advance of the election.
Labour had just lost our fourth election in a row and it might be thought we were not in much of a position to give anyone else advice on how to win. But we had a strong record of opposition to apartheid (not true of everyone in UK politics at the time) and we wanted to help the ANC as much as possible.
I was working for John Smith, the then Labour leader. Mr Mandela called on Mr Smith for a meeting at the House of Commons. As a junior speechwriter I was not at the meeting the two men had, but all the staff had been told that we would have an opportunity to meet Mr Mandela afterwards.
For someone of my generation this was an exciting opportunity. I had campaigned against apartheid throughout my youth. I had marched on the streets. I had sung and danced to the Special AKA “Free Nelson Mandela” at many parties. I had been at Trafalgar Square, so often the scene of protests against the Apartheid Government, for the joyous celebration when he had been released a few years before. Now I was to meet him.
I remember we all lined up in a row, advisers, speechwriters, correspondence staff, and we waited for him to emerge As he came out he stopped and shook hands with every one of us. Very deliberate. Very unhurried. And he said to each one of us in that halting style, “I am very honoured to meet you.” Honoured? To meet me? Us? Here was a symbol of defiance and fortitude against an evil regime. He was on his way to being the first freely elected President of his country. And he was saying he was honoured to meet us. It was typical of the disarming, beguiling and very powerful courtesy and generosity by which the world came to know him over the coming years. He is loved and missed by so many today not just for what he achieved but for the manner in which he achieved it.
I saw him two more times in the flesh. When he came to the Labour Party conference in 2000 and described himself as an unemployed pensioner with a criminal record. And then about five years ago when I joined the crowd watching him unveiling the statue of himself which stands in Parliament Square. Here too he was warm and humorous, reflecting that when he was standing opposite Parliament with Oliver Tambo as a young man in London many years before, he did not think he would ever be back unveiling a statue of himself.
Nelson Mandela has so much to teach us. The power of love, warmth, generosity. The greater good that uniting people has over dividing them. He said “resentment is like drinking poison and hoping it will kill your enemies.” A universal figure. The world really is a bit smaller today. I will never forget the day I shook his hand.