How Nelson Mandela Inspired Black Britain



How the first born of the Windrush Generation in the UK identified with the streets of Soweto

THERE HAVE been three major world events in my lifetime which I believed would never happen.

The first was the end of white rule in Rhodesia and the creation of Zimbabwe in 1978. Second, the release of Nelson Mandela in 1990 and his becoming President of South Africa in 1994. And, finally, the election of Barack Obama as the first black President of the US in 2008.

These events over the past 40 years have had a major impact on the psyche of black people in Britain.

Mandela not only transcended African politics, but was the moral barometer of humanity and quest for social justice and equality for all. His personal sacrifice has inspired many to look at the issue of achievement, leadership, ethics, principles and humility.

His imprisonment and the anti-apartheid movement in the UK played a key role in influencing and revitalising democratic socialism within the Labour Party and connecting with grassroots activists, the trade union movement, black Socialists and Pan African/Afrocentric organisations.

It was also a political dividing line for the first born generation of the Windrush Generation in the UK who could identify with the streets of Soweto, Johannesburg, New York, Chicago, Rio, and Kingston.

Mandela’s imprisonment was one of the key factors for me joining the Labour Party and becoming a community activist/historian.

I can remember the day two of my sisters and I went to Barclays in Wolverhampton to announce that we wanted to close our bank accounts.

The deputy manager came along to speak to us as three teenagers to ensure we were making the right decision. We told them we were boycotting Barclays as Azania (South Africa) and Mandela must be free. They soon got the message.

I stopped listening to Ray Charles and Millie Jackson as I found out they went to Sun City Resort in South Africa along with other celebrities and sporting personalities, including some members of the West Indies cricket team.

I attended various concerts and rallies and, of course, went to Trafalgar Square to South African House to pay homage to Mandela.

As Barclays was one of the main banks in Jamaica, and across the Caribbean, a lot of our people saw them as part of the ‘Mother Country’ mentality and thus my parents’ generation felt they had to stick with the bank for better or worse.

However, we were the first born generation in the Britain and we wanted to change that relationship and Mandela provided the solution in breaking this cycle.

Black British politics and the battle for race equality in the UK have played an integral part and balancing act between African Americans and Africans on the continent. The Atlantic connection in learning from the Civil Rights movement and fighting apartheid influenced the development and creation of Black History Month in the UK on October 1, 1987.

Twenty six years on, Black History Month has influenced and inspired others in the equalities world to organise similar months around exposing the hidden and excluded histories such as LGBT, Disability and Gypsy and Traveller History Months.

1987 was also the year that the African Jubilee Year Declaration was launched which called on local and national government to recognise the contributions of Africans to the cultural, economic and political life of London and the UK.

The declaration also called on authorities to implement their duties under the Race Relations Act 1976 and to intensify their support against apartheid.

The declaration also made a call for authorities to support and continue the process of naming monuments, parks and buildings reflecting the contributions of historical and contemporary heroes of African descent, thus giving positive affirmation to children and young people identity and self-worth.

Mandela’s legacy in the UK was further reinforced on one of his many visits to the UK when he met Doreen and Neville Lawrence and heard their plight following the murder of their son Stephen.

Mandela played a key role in influencing Jack Straw, the then Home Secretary, to establish the Macpherson Inquiry which lead to the Race Relations Act 2001 and recognised institutionalised racism and promoting a clear public duty on race equality.

Also by being elected as the first Black President in South Africa he also had an impact on Labour in recognising and giving opportunity for a number of black politicians to have senior leadership roles as cabinet members such as Baroness Valerie Amos, Paul Boateng, Baroness Patricia Scotland, Keith Vaz and the rise of David Lammy, Oona King and Dawn Butler.

Sadly, the issue of black representation is still a vex issue and lack of leadership opportunities creates the impression that the black vote is taken for granted and that policies are not meeting the needs in tackling racial and social inequality.

Although I never met Mandela in person, I had the opportunity in 2007 when I was in Cape Town for the South African Book Fair to see the chief executive of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, Mr Achmat Dangor.

I presented a copy of the book When We Ruled by Robin Walker, published by my company Every Generation Media, as a gift to Madiba which he was happy to accept on his behalf.

I learnt a lot about the work of the foundation in South Africa which had a clear objective in preserving the history and narrative of Mandela to educate all South Africans – especially children and young people – who did not know or experience apartheid.

They did this in a number of ways, including producing free comics on his life and struggle and the long road to freedom for Mandela. I guess that is why today all young people still know about Mandela and his legacy and thus can part of this process of mourning and celebrating his life.

This strategy of preserving historically legacy has always been a fraught issue for black icons that we celebrate such as Martin Luther King, Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, and Kwame Nkrumah.

Often their legacies formed the basis of family squabbles fighting for royalties, inheritance, and being the official representative to the world. These legacies eventually are controlled by the state or government sponsored museum or archives and thus as a community we do not directly control or influence this legacy.

The only exception I can think of in the UK is the Huntley Archives which the late Jessica Huntley and Eric along with the Friends of Huntley Archives work in partnership with London Metropolitan Archives or the George Padmore Institute which is the legacy of John La Rose.

I remember Mr Dangor explained to me told they learnt from experiences of other black icons legacy mistakes and that the foundation was created to be independent of the family, ANC and the state so they could be custodians of Mandela legacy and vision for the future.

It is a pity in the UK we still are not in a position to have the support of philanthropists and financial backers to preserve the legacy of individuals and the wider community around our history and heritage.

The Black Cultural Archives (BCA) has taken 20 years to be in a position to raise money for their building in Windrush Square in Brixton which is due to open 2014.

However, they are still trying to fundraise for revenue costs and development funding to acquired and develop the history of Black Britain.

The other experience of being in Cape Town was going to Robben Island and visiting the prison camp where Mandela spent 27 years of his life.

This experience reminded me of going to the slave forts along the West coast of Africa – particularly in Ghana, Gambia and Senegal – and the caves in Zanzibar and Kenya, in East Africa.

You can still feel 400 years of the haunting spirits, pain and suffering of our enslaved ancestors in these confined spaces of dungeons and rooms where we were packed like sardines for days on end before being transported to the Caribbean and the Americas.

I felt this also on Robben Island and although we were not allowed to go inside the cell of Mandela I did go in to a similar cell.

I had a similar experience but the difference was that Mandela’s sprit still lives.

He was able to use his imprisonment to shape a new South Africa and inspire black people in Britain to deal and challenge the glass ceiling in preventing us to reach our goals and aspirations.

I believe that if every young person went to Robben Island and had a taste of the experience that Mandela, the level of knife and gun crime on our streets would be reduced dramatically.

This is the legacy of Mandela for us in Britain today that we need to learn and shape our destiny for future generations.

Over the next few months there will be a number of commemorations and events celebrating his life.

The Hackney museum are organising an event on Friday, January 3, 2014, between 2-7pm for everyone to share their stories about Nelson Mandela and the history of black struggle and heritage in the UK.

For more information click here

(Original published in The Voice Newspaper)

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