Unveiled at last: a fitting monument to courage and hope

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Indy Politics

The statues of Parliament Square had, until yesterday, evoked memories of a very different South Africa. Both Winston Churchill and Jan Smuts played key roles in the Boer War that became a precursor of a century of pain. In their time, only the white man could shape the future.

Then Nelson Mandela arrived. At 89, he may be somewhat frail these days but he remains capable of inspiring awe and excitement in all who gather, happy simply to lay eyes upon him.

Yesterday, they came from all walks of life. Ordinary people with their children. Those who campaigned for his freedom. Political leaders from all parties. The Prime Minister.

And while Mandela is not one to dwell on the past, he did allow himself to fleetingly reflect on a previous visit made before he was jailed by the apartheid regime. At Parliament Square, he and his close friend Oliver Tambo had "half joked that one day a statue of a black person would be erected here".

He could not have imagined for a moment such a statue would be of him. Yet Mandela said the 9ft bronze now stood as a symbol of all those who have fought oppression around the world.

Accompanied by his wife, Graca Machel, who was made a Dame for her own humanitarian work on Tuesday night, he added: "It's an honour for us to be with you on the occasion of the unveiling of this statue today. We never dreamed we would all be here today. Though this statue is of one man, it should, in actual fact, symbolise all those who have resisted oppression, especially in my country."

The Tory leader David Camer-on, David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, and John Prescott, the ex-deputy prime minister, watched as Gordon Brown unveiled the statue. The Prime Minister said: "Nelson Mandela is one of the most courageous and best-loved men of all time. You will be here with us always.

"This statue is a beacon of hope. It sends around the world the most powerful of messages: that no injustice can last forever, that suffering in the cause of freedom will never be in vain."

Ken Livingstone, the Mayor of London, who helped campaign for the statue to be erected in the heart of Westminster, gave his staff the morning off to attend the ceremony. He said: "This statue of Nelson Mandela is placed here in Parliament Square to demonstrate that the struggle of the South African people to overcome the tyranny of the racist apartheid state was itself a struggle for universal human rights."

And while apartheid had gone, Mr Mandela said there were other issues still to be addressed. He said he hoped to return next year to mark his 90th birthday with a concert in Hyde Park to mobilise the international campaign against HIV and Aids.

The statue of Mr Mandela, by the late Ian Walters, had originally been intended for Trafalgar Square. Yet it now stands alongside monuments to Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill and, of course, Jan Christian Smuts, the former South African prime minister.

But Russell Van Niekerk, a South African teacher who works in Bromley, south-east London, had come to see just one man. There with with his 14-month-old son Aidan, he said of Mr Mandela: "He is a hero. I owe my life in London to Mr Mandela. I want my son to see Mr Mandela and will tell him he has seen Mandela in the flesh."