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The world loses a colossus

ALAN SIMPSON remembers Mandela's grace, warmth and towering humanity when he met him in Johannesburg in 1995

Nelson Mandela was late, an hour late, but no-one cared. 

We were waiting in the ANC headquarters in Johannesburg in 1995. A motley bunch of MPs who were part of the first parliamentary cricket team to visit the now multi-racial South Africa.

Most of us had boycotted the apartheid regime for the entirety of our adult lives. Some of us had previously been banned from entering South Africa because of our involvement in the anti-apartheid struggle. Few could have imagined being where we were.

But now everything had changed. Graham Allen MP and I had gone from Nottingham and I had raised money for cricket kit that we had got with the help of Gunn & Moore.  

It meant we could leave kit with every school, community and township that we played a game in.

But it was the presence of Labour MP Dick Caborn, who had worked directly with the ANC for decades, that helped set up this remarkable meeting.

When he arrived Mandela's explanation was on both a humble and grand scale.

"I'm sorry for keeping you waiting," he said simply, "I was just saying goodbye to the Pope."

Fair enough. It was hardly a line you could trump. But what he brought into the room was something much more than a cordial apology.

There were awkward divisions in our parliamentary "cricket" group. Some of the Tory MPs in the tour party had, in the past, called for him to to be hanged while he had been in prison.

Now they queued to shake his hand. But Mandela was above it all. He brought a grace, warmth and towering humanity into the room that went well beyond his physical presence.

One by one, he patiently circled the room, greeting MPs, lords, wives and partners in a way that left everyone feeling so much more significant than we really were. I had taken my 19-year-old daughter with me on the trip and this was a really big moment for Hannah. 

Until we landed Hannah had never knowingly eaten South African produce in her life. It had become second nature for her to ask where the fruit and veg came from.

From early childhood she had also got used to being asked to leave shops that would have no truck with such moral "pickiness." Now she was in the same room as the great moral icon of her life, desperately thinking of something profound to say when he reached her.

Mandela left her till last. When he reached her it was with a conversation stopper.

He said: "I am so grateful that you are part of this visit. I have such faith in what your generation will bring to the planet."

All the planned profundities dissolved into a scarf of tears and a simple "thank you."

Time and again we came across similar responses to the man once regarded as the most dangerous threat to life and limb, now transformed into a universal saviour. Mandela had the ability to pass on an obligation as though it was a gift. 

It was as though he could see right inside you, knew you could be better than you were and thanked you for everything you might be. It was astonishing to witness the transformative effect that living up to such expectations had on people.

On Robben Island, neither of us could step into Mandela's cell. You couldn't turn a place of incarceration into a tourist photo-shoot without a sense of missing the point.

Instead we walked around the island with one of the guards who had been "in charge" of Mandela. Here was a white, working-class Afrikaner describing Mandela as the man who had freed him from ignorance and hatred.

You could almost touch his sense of gratitude to a man he might at one time have been asked to kill.


It was no different when we met the security staff who now guarded the president in a completely different context. His personal bodyguard offered a perspective on security I just hadn't expected.

Of course the far-right had to be watched, but his daily concerns were much more earthy. 

Mandela was in the habit of waking early and liked to leave the presidential accommodation and wander down to the market. I could see the panic this would cause among his security staff but was unprepared for the answer I got when asking where the greatest risk came from.

"It's the women," his bodyguard said. "Whenever he shows up, they all want to hug him. It really worries me. You know, there's only so many hugs a guy of his age can take."

After we had laughed at this, I did get him on to more serious risk issues.

The guy had been De Klerk's bodyguard before staying on with Mandela. Pressed about the differences, he was no less disarming.

Previously he had had a job. Now it felt like he'd been given a knighthood.

I asked what practical difference this made and his answer has remained indelibly printed on me.

"Well, for De Klerk, I'd have taken a bullet for the money," he said. "For Mandela, I would take it for free." It doesn't come much clearer than that.

What Mandela was asking for, however, was not that anyone should be willing to die for him but that we risk living for each other. 

Much will now be said about the forgiveness he brought with him on his release from prison, about his respect for the qualities of loyalty and kindness that could be rescued from the disabling legacy of apartheid and about the enduring warmth and dignity that surrounded his being. But what stands out for me is something else.

There's a part of his autobiography in which Mandela talks about the sense of powerlessness that people often bemoan.

His view was that this was a mask - that what we are really afraid of is just how powerful we might actually be, if only we were prepared to believe in ourselves and each other.

For me, this is the greatest invitation and challenge Mandela still holds out. Not to be better than we are but to be as big and brave and as just as we really might be.

There are few eras in which people can say they have shared their time with a colossus. Someone who showed the world what towering humanity looks like, even from a prison cell.

Nelson Mandela's death leaves the world feeling a little smaller, but he would be the first to tell us it needn't be so. It wasn't austerity and division that he ever stood for, but solidarity and equality. 

And that's the rub. Those who profess to love the memory must also live the message.

In rich nations and in poor, we all have a long walk to freedom stretching ahead of us. 

Step into it and Mandela will still be there.

It is something we should count far more as a blessing than a loss.


Alan Simpson was a Labour MP from 1992-2010


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