Friday, 6 December 2013

Nelson Mandela – a personal reflection on his legacy

Nelson Mandela
The Long Walk to Freedom
Drakenstein prison near Franschhoek
Much will be written over the next few weeks on the life and legacy of this remarkable man, but to me I will always remember him for the immense changes that I have seen in South Africa, which I have been lucky enough to visit many times over six decades. In fact the whole of Southern Africa has changed beyond recognition since Barbara and I first set foot in Cape Town in September 1969.

The Cape Town that greeted us was cold, grey and unfriendly. Everywhere were taxis displaying signs ‘whites only’; park benches, beaches, all with the same ubiquitous sign. The local people, mainly coloured, were (not surprisingly) sullen and an air of hostility was all pervasive.

South Africa was in the depths of its era of apartheid and it was nowhere more iniquitous than in the Cape, with its large coloured population who were in a political and social no-man’s land. It was little wonder that they appeared unfriendly. On his election victory, D.F. Malan, the rabid leader of the first Nationalist Party government, had told his supporters: “For the first time, South Africa is our own. May God grant that it always remains our own. We Afrikaners are not a work of Man, but a creation of God. It is to us that millions of barbarous blacks look for guidance, justice and the Christian way of life.”

Although Cape Town had been oppressive, Johannesburg was even more foreboding. As in Cape Town, ‘whites only’ signs were in profusion, and one evening, after leaving the whites-only cinema, we heard the curfew siren, warning the black population, mainly Zulu, that they must no longer be seen on the streets.

We were staying with parents of friends in Johannesburg who were regular church attendees, and it was implicit that we should accompany them to church on the Sunday morning. The service in the Dutch Reform Church was entirely in Afrikaans, and after the service we were introduced to the predikant (pastor) who advised us in all seriousness not to venture near Zambia, as it was populated by black people who were all ‘heathens’. We must stay in South Africa, which he explained was ‘God’s country’. Here was our first introduction to the old Boer mentality, exhibited in this modern Afrikaner, a direct descendant of the original white settlers.

This bigoted predikant in the 1969 Transvaal provided living evidence that the old Boer attitudes had survived into the mid-20th Century. They were the basis for the apartheid system and it was evident that this archaic, racist country was on an inexorable path to self-destruction - we knew virtually nothing of Nelson Mandela and the miracle that would occur little more than 20 years later! It was therefore with a great sense of relief that we joined the Great North Road again for the 485 km journey to the Rhodesian border.

We crossed the Limpopo River, entering Rhodesia at Beitbridge, and it was immediately evident that we were in a very special country, of outstanding natural beauty. The roads were immaculate, hotels and restaurants of a very high standard and the local people were friendly and accommodating. Rhodesia, like South Africa, was also under white minority rule, Ian Smith’s Government having declared unilateral independence from Britain four years earlier, but there was no obvious evidence of the aggressive racism that we had encountered south of the Limpopo. There was a pervading air of optimism and confidence in the future of this small country, which had everything to sustain it, agriculture, minerals and enormous potential for tourism. Who could have envisaged that South Africa, the sad country that we had just left, would enjoy peaceful transition to majority black rule under Nelson Mandela, whereas Rhodesia would be plunged into a bloody civil war, leading to the horrors of Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe?

South Africa still has immense problems, and an ever increasing gap between rich and poor, but when I consider that Cape Town is now MEI Conferences'  major  venue, and that delegates from all races attend the conferences, in a hotel which would have been obliged to turn many away in the past, it is evident that Mandela’s legacy is immense.


  1. Nelson Mandela - A beacon of inspiration and truly a Son of the soil. May his soul rest in eternal peace.

  2. Not only does he belong to South Africa but to the rest of the world as well. He was a global icon who lighted up the way of freedom in a very certain way. May his soul rest in peace.

  3. I was so pleased to read your tribute to Mandela. Many memories of South Africa during Apartheid. Peter and I last visited in 2003. I feel sad that all the promises that were made have not been fulfilled. SA has the best food in the world! Thank you for your blog.
    Ellen King


If you have difficulty posting a comment, please email the comment, and any photos that you might like to add, to and I will submit on your behalf