'In Brixton, he was speaking about us'

Black broadcaster Trevor Phillips was among the crowds in south London
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The Independent Online
He kept calling it "Bristol'. In Brixton, you don't get people's names wrong. Such mistakes can lead to the sort of misunderstanding that has given Brixtonians the reputation of being prickly and hostile towards outsiders. For Brixtonians it's just another example of the way people ignore and undervalue the multi-racial inner city. Thus the fact that Nelson Mandela got the name of the entire place wrong, but still received a rapturous ovation, made his achievement on the streets all the more remarkable.

Of course, he praised "Bristol's" contribution to the anti-apartheid struggle. He may or may not have been aware that most black people tended to regard the British anti-apartheid movement as the creature of white liberals. Being a political genius he is bound to be aware that many black people here lined up behind his Black Consciousness opponents, regarding the multi-racial African National Congress as likely to compromise with the oppressor. But with his exquisitely paced rhetoric, and his knack for the right gesture at the right moment he charmed the pants off Brixton. Next term the essay topic "The Day I Saw Nelson Mandela" will no doubt figure in the lives of thousands of Brixton children, black and white.

All of which makes it so much more tragic that people did not appear to realise that Mandela was not only speaking to us; he was also speaking about us. The old fox is a master of symbols. His decision to wear the Springbok shirt last year at the World Cup rugby finals did more than any number of speeches to convince the Afrikaaners that they could live with the new order; the acceptance of Speaker Betty Boothroyd's helping hand yesterday, at once acknowledged his physical frailty, and emphasised the triumph of his spirit over attempts to break his body.

So the decision to go to Brixton,the symbolic heart of black Britain, was a clear signal that he identified with those who still face prejudice here. He knows that more than half of the young black men in this area and others like it are unemployed. He could hardly ignore the deep sense of neglect that hangs over the shabby inner city streets. And there is no question that his choice of Brixton was a signal to our nation that perhaps we should be less keen to lecture South Africans on the threat of crime and instability in their country until we've done something about them here it home.

In my own conversation with Mandela, I presented him with a copy of The Runnymede Trust's report. "This is Where I Live", a survey of the views of young black men in Brixton. Remember that virtually his first speech when he emerged from prison was to urge young black South Africans to return to school, and to value their education. He reacted instantly when I pointed out that one of the key findings of the report was that black students were up to six times as likely, here and elsewhere in Britain, to be expelled from school. The young men themselves saw that as a failure by the education system that had wrecked their lives.

In the face of the celebration and adulation, it is a token of Mandela's greatness that he tried to point to the harsh realities facing black citizens in every way open to him. It is equally a token of our political class's moral feebleness that we ignored this side of his message and concentrated on his forgiveness of the hypocrites who lined up pay tributes just as fulsome as the abuse they heaped on him less than a decade ago.

But we should listen to his warning. If we, like the apartheid regime, fail to see the signs of a nation divided by poverty and race, we must not be surprised if our society begins to fall apart in flames.

Trevor Phillips is chairman of the Runnymede Trust and executive producer of factual programmes at London Weekend Television