By Duchess of Hackney

Hackney livin' n lovin'. Sarky frosty knickers always gobby, and perpetually pissed off for good reasons. Wind up merchant extraordinaire, but a nice old fashioned unusually unusual gal... Writing lots of wrongs.

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Nelson Mandela, my memories

Nelson Mandela, my memories

People remember where they were at certain iconic moments of their lives and for me, February 11, 1990 was a day filled with varying emotions. Nelson Mandela was walking to freedom from his 27 years of incarceration (18 of them on Robben Island), just as I was beginning my incarceration at the Sybil Brand Institution in Los Angeles.  To be more precise, I was awaiting my trial.

It was an unbelievably proud moment as I watched a proud and resilient man who never gave in to his oppressors or let his people down, walk out of  captivity. I cried tears of joy, for a moment forgetting my own legal woes. The walk with Winnie, his arrival, the roar of the crowds and his speech outside City Hall in Cape Town. It was an historical, moving and for me, deeply personal.

I learned first hand what Mandela stood and fought for at the tender age of 12. I barely remember having heard of him before then, but as fate would have it, my family wound up living on the same street in Hendon (North West London) with a South African family with political refugee status, whose father was a member of the ANC  and whose political career began as a journalist for Drum Magazine.  They had fled South Africa for Tanzania, before moving on to London.  The eldest child a girl, became my best-friend, sharing adolescent dreams, secrets and our love for teenage music heart throbs of the day, but she also shared some of what she could about life in South Africa.

The day eventually came when we had to leave, my father’s 3 year posting as Naval Attache at the Nigerian Embassy in London came to an end and was time to head back to Lagos. My friend and her family left Britain a few years later and settled in New York, but a few years later we heard her father had been assassinated while on a trip to Tanzania.

At my new school in Nigeria, part of our literature curriculum was “Cry The Beloved Country” by Alan Paton, which had a profound effect on my 13 year old still developing social conscience – it was the beginning.  When I returned to London three years later, I became more aware of racial inequality. As a British born child of both African and Caribbean parents, living both in Nigeria and the UK, I was never exposed to the ugliness racism. There was no segregation or apartheid in Nigeria and in when I lived in the UK I was the daughter of a diplomat, living in suburban London with parents who never made race an issue. If they were ever effected, we were non the wiser. In fact I remember a couple of occasions when my dad would have parties and a neighbour would call the police on account of the noise. Nigerians can be quite loud and have tendencies of very long good-byes, as they stand by their cars to leave.  There was nothing the police could do because of his diplomatic immunity. All that changed when I moved to Hackney and a different lifestyle.

By 19, I’d grown into quite a militant which I  can partially attribute to what I saw going on around me and discovering  “The Autobiography of Malcom X.”  Racial tension in London was high, no thanks to police brutality towards black men, with some  some high profile cases taking place here in Hackney. Stoke Newington police station was the nexus of everything that was wrong and I went on anti-racism and anti-apartheid marches, demonstrated outside South Africa House and took a cue from my mother, by not knowingly purchasing produce or products grown or  made in South Africa. At one point I seriously considered converting to Islam.

While I personally struggle with the concept of forgiveness on the scale he had to deal with, I can understand why Mandela forgave his captors and oppressors, it was crucial to moving South Africa forward, but still, the mans capacity to forgive is colossal and it’s what sets him apart.

Post colonial Africa has seen it’s fair share of dictators and demagogues who become “leaders” for egotistical reasons, Mandela was anything but that, and Desmond Tutu said it best in his tribute in allAfrica,  he described Mandela as:

the leader of our generation who stood head and shoulders above his contemporaries — a colossus of unimpeachable moral character and integrity, the world’s most admired and revered public figure.


In response to Bill Clinton asking how he was able to forgive those who tortured and imprisoned him, Mandela responded:  “People can take everything from you. I lost my family, the chance to see my children grow up, the best years of my life. They can take everything except your mind and your heart. Those things I decided not to give away”. Clinton said Mandela looked at him, smiled and said: “neither should you.”

Requiescat in pace Madiba.

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