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

Comment

Share
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

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

Recruitment Genius: Experienced Bookkeeper - German Speaking - Part Time

£23000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This firm of accountants based ...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£30000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are a financial services c...

Ashdown Group: Field Service Engineer

£30000 - £32000 per annum + car allowance and on call: Ashdown Group: A succes...

Recruitment Genius: Sales & Marketing Co-Ordinator

£15000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Well established small company ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A woman runs down the street  

Should wolf-whistling be reported to the Police? If you're Poppy Smart, then yes

Jane Merrick
 

Voices in Danger: How can we prevent journalists from being sexually assaulted in conflict zones?

Heather Blake
Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence