'I would love to put each and every one of you in my pockets and return with you to South Africa'

Raymond Whitaker
Friday 12 July 1996 23:02

The ethnic hotpot of Brixton in south London and the imperial grandeur of Trafalgar Square are only 15 minutes apart by Tube, but worlds apart in every other sense. Yesterday they were both engulfed by a single phenomenon: Mandela-mania.

To the thousands of black people who converged on Brixton to see Nelson Mandela, the President of South Africa is a symbol of pride. "Mandela, you took us to the promised land, thank you," read one banner. "Viva President Mandela, free at last," said another. "He is a saviour, not only of Africa, but of the whole world," said Esther Ogua, a Nigerian-born retired journalist and lawyer who had brought her grandson.

Jammed among market stalls in the narrow space between Brixton Recreation Centre and a railway viaduct, the crowd blew whistles, danced, clapped and sang to a troupe of Brazilian drummers and a thunderous sound system. It did not seem possible that the noise could increase, but there was still no mistaking the hero's coming: voices rose to hysteria pitch and beyond as Mr Mandela, in one of his trademark silk shirts, arrived with the Prince of Wales. Several women burst into tears when they saw the stately, grey-haired president.

The dignitaries disappeared inside the recreation centre to meet community leaders and talk about schemes launched to regenerate the area after the 1985 riots and subsequent violence. Mr Mandela told them it was "the fulfilment of a dream" to visit Brixton: "I want to tell you that Britain, especially London and the community of Brixton, were the heartland of the anti-apartheid struggle."

In the streets outside, the crowds and the mood of excitement rose close to danger level. "This time I'm going to touch him, no matter what," one young girl muttered.

When Mr Mandela emerged for a walkabout an hour later, he was able to shake only a few hands before people came swarming over the barriers. Anxious security men returned him and the Prince to their Rolls-Royce, but could not prevent the car being mobbed as the motorcade swung into Brixton Road. Police horses managed to clear a path, but well over half of the 10,000 people who had come to be in Mr Mandela's presence failed to catch a glimpse of him.

In Trafalgar Square the crowd was predominantly white, but no less thrilled. Although it was impossible to see Mr Mandela among the sea of heads, one could tell where he was from the bubble of ecstatic cheering which accompanied him. "I've been coming here for 30 years for anti-apartheid demonstrations," said Mervyn Bennun, an Exeter University law lecturer who left South Africa in 1964, "but we never had as many people as this."

Finally came the most intensely symbolic moment of Mr Mandela's visit: his appearance on the balcony of South Africa House, once an outpost of apartheid which was barricaded against the world outside. It echoed his speech from the balcony of Cape Town's city hall on the night of his release from 27 years in prison.

As the sun shone on the column bearing a statue of his naval namesake, the bells of St Martin's in the Fields chimed and the smell of vendors' hamburgers drifted across the square, the latter-day Nelson told his adorers: "I wish I had big pockets, because I love each and every one of you, and I'd like to fit each and every one of you in my pocket and return with you to South Africa." He thanked the British people for their help in the struggle against apartheid, but said South Africa still needed their help to entrench its young democracy.

In his speech, and at a press conference afterwards, Mr Mandela tried to deflect some of the adulation away from himself. "All over the globe there are men and women who fight injustice. They have a vision, and are prepared to suffer for it," he said to the crowd, but they cheered only for him.

"The response of the people of this country exceeded my wildest expectations," Mr Mandela told the press at the end of his visit. It is almost certainly true that the normally reserved British were equally surprised at themselves.

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