Gordon Brown: Madiba taught us how to live – and act – in hope


Related Topics

For many of us born in the second half of the 20th century, the anti-apartheid struggle was the defining political question of our time.

It is hard to conjure now just how the blood ran cold when we saw pictures of 12-year-old Hector Pieterson dying in the arms of another student during the Soweto Uprising; or how we felt when we read that Steve Biko had died in police custody. These were not simply news reports for us – they were messages from our extended family, reports of friends we may have never met, but whose fate was bound with ours.

This oppression in South Africa did not simply define how one felt about the tyranny of racism, but summoned us to answer how we felt about hope itself. Because the anti-apartheid movement asked us not simply for our outrage – but for our solidarity. It called us not to live in hope but to act in hope – to believe that no injustice will last forever if people of good conscience are prepared to stand up and speak out.

I remember there were those who opposed sanctions or even wore "hang Mandela T-shirts", but the majority of British people can be very proud of their role the struggle, whether through boycotting South African products, supporting sanctions, protesting in Trafalgar Square, joining the concert protests or in thousands of different ways adding their voices to the cries of those in townships and jails a continent away.

My first frontline involvement in the anti-apartheid campaign was as editor of our campus newspaper almost 40 years ago at Edinburgh University. Through a painstaking investigation we exposed the University's shares in apartheid South Africa, and eventually forced their sale. So many of us could tell similar stories – of the rugby matches boycotted, the holidays not taken, the petitions signed.

The contribution of the British people – the trades unions, the student movement, the Liberal and Labour Parties, the ordinary shoppers who did their bit – all of it should never be forgotten.

It was this story I carried with me when I met Nelson Mandela – Madiba – for the first time. He turned to me with a smile, and pointed: "Ah, representative of the British Empire!" It was typical of the man; forgiving, playful, utterly gracious and with a generosity of spirit that lifts the world.

One day we will explain to our children why so many streets, student union buildings, council chambers, town squares and children in Britain are named after this man from so far away. We will tell them about a great uprising of hope – a time when the British people stood up for justice, and we prevailed.

And so the lesson of the South African struggle is surely that change never comes without a fight, but when we fight, progressives can change the course of history. That is exactly the lesson we should heed as we tackle the great global causes of today; poverty, climate change, terrorism, nuclear proliferation. Thirty years ago today nobody would ever have believed that apartheid would crumble, but 20 years ago today Nelson Mandela walked into the sunlight a free man. The story of the campaign for his release – like that of Aung San Suu Kyi who remains oppressed today – is that while the road to justice is long, nobody need ever walk it alone.

Change comes to those with the courage to will it; 20 years from now let people say this generation created a decade not of austerity, but shared prosperity, not of conflict, not of peace, not of inequality and climate chaos, but of sustainable development in the interests of all.

The anti-apartheid struggle shows what can be done when people come together to build a better world; there is nothing to do now, but begin.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Head of Marketing and Communications - London - up to £80,000

£70000 - £80000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group Head of Marketing and Communic...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: Level 3 Nursery Nurse required for ...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: L3 Nursery Nurses urgently required...

SEN Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: We have a number of schools based S...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Ed Miliband's conference speech must show Labour has a head as well as a heart

Patrick Diamond

To hear the Yes campaigners, you’d think London was the most evil place on Earth

Yasmin Alibhai Brown
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam