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Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Blog 44 Meeting Nelson Mandela

News of Nelson Mandela’s critically deteriorating health and a visit to the impressive city of Glasgow at the weekend, prompted memories of meeting the great man there in October 1993. Yes I’ve mentioned it in passing before but maybe it’s time to walk it through.

Still in the buzzing, fizzy, glowing aftermath of his release and the heightened sense of potential for the new South Africa, it felt as close to meeting a deity as I was likely to get. Most strange perhaps was that there was no sense of disappointment afterwards, no day-after-Christmas feeling. Nearly twenty years on if I think about I still feel a bit tingly.

The background to this personally and politically momentous event was that I was serving on Newcastle City Council at the time on the Race Equality subcommittee which, as I may have mentioned before, was a subcommittee of the ‘don’t be an arse’ committee. Although I’d only been a city councillor for a few years and there were more eminent and vastly more aged incumbents who might have liked to be included – as the first black woman to get elected to the city council I kinda got a free pass. I took with me my 16 month-old daughter. I did not see eye to eye with many of my fellow labour councillors on many strategic issues (hence I was the only councillor to congratulate the demonstrators who invaded the council chambers to protest about the council tax and I was under threat for many months of having the whip withdrawn because of my complaints about councillors’ expenses – waaaay before the Telegraph decided it was a cause celebre) but I never got any complaints about bringing my children to council meetings. And this was odd because there weren’t many female councillors young enough to be parenting pre-school children.

So I digress – as I always do in this blog – well it IS my blog.

Off we went on the coach to Glasgow – me with my buggy and baby and baby paraphernalia and lots of support and kind words and help from the other councillors. We arrived in Glasgow and the air was pulsating with excitement and expectation. The lucky few of us who were actually to meet him rather than just see the great man from a distance in amongst the throngs, were ushered into a hall where Mr. M was due to give one of his many addresses. And no – I am truly truly sorry I really cannot recall the content of what was said. Later we saw him again addressing a crowd outside the main chambers and he broke into an impromptu dance on the stage to the ecstatic delight of the crowd – un-statesman like – or maybe more a statesman than anything I’ve ever seen. And again later we saw him in yet another larger staged area making a more sober address. I can recall the tone of his beautiful voice, his presence, his command of the charged atmosphere, the exuberance balanced with gravitas but not the actual words which somehow seemed superfluous.

After the first encounter, Nelson Mandela was making his way through the room and a fellow councillor shoved me towards him with the idea that as I was the only person in the room with a child I might attract his attention. This ruse worked and he made a beeline for me, came right up to me, smiled, said – something – and then put his hands out to pick up my child. Oh joy. And if this had been today, about 100 people would have snapped the moment on their mobile phones. What occurred next, I have held against my daughter for the intervening two decades. The little monkey was slobbering away on a juicy pear, thoroughly enjoying herself and refused – REFUSED - to be picked up and held by Nelson Mandela. The great man laughed and smiled at the greedy wench and was moved away by fate and the people who were in charge of his itinerary.
Hey ho.

I remember feeling a moment’s guilt when a while later I saw a Spitting Image cartoon of a Nelson Mandela puppet – in the loo – trying to have some privacy with people knocking on the bathroom door wanting to meet him. But I did meet him and despite the pear incident I’m so glad.

Surely, along with his more obvious and visible achievements would have to go that fact that he has managed, for the whole of his life – as he managed with me and so many others that day in 1993, not to be a disappointment.

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