“Perhaps the fact of our presence here… might serve to close a circle which is 200 years old.
I say 200 years because the first time this country [Britain] entered ours as a colonising power was the year 1795” – Nelson Mandela to a joint-sitting of the British Houses of Parliament, 1996.
A thousand years hence, London’s Parliament Square will, in all probability, still be a tourist attraction. And I can see a bright African youth peering at the statues in the Square and resting his eyes on that of Nelson Mandela, which was unveiled on 29 August this year.
“My God! What is he doing there?” the youth wonders. Yes – Mandela’s statue stands alongside those of the British wartime prime minister, Sir Winston Churchill, an arch-imperialist; two ancient British prime ministers, Sir Robert Peel and Benjamin Disraeli; the American founding father, Abraham Lincoln; and General Jan Smuts, one of the heroes of the Boers who practised racism in South Africa in the 20th century. The youth is confused. He whips out his nano-computer and types “Mandela/Britain: African perspective” into it. Out roll the words:
“1964: Mandela jailed for life by a South African court presided over by a judge appointed by the racist apartheid regime that in 1969, killed 61 Africans, mainly shot in the back, at Sharpeville. Relations between Britain’s Conservative Government and South Africa remain normal. Britain works at the UN to frustrate African nations’ demand that sanctions be imposed on South Africa.
“The Guardian writes on 16 June 1964 that: ‘Wherever plans are discussed to end the subjection of black South Africans, Britain counsels delay, restraint, vacillation. To the rest of the world … Britain appears to be engaged in a prolonged fighting defence of South African interests, with never a point conceded until it has been overrun.’
“British Labour Party gains power after elections in October 1964. Hopes are aroused that British policy towards South Africa will change and that there will be more sympathy for the black South African cause. But the Labour prime minister, Harold Wilson, had bound his own hand and feet by telling a press conference in London, before he came to power, that Labour was ‘not in favour of trade sanctions [against South Africa] partly because, even if fully effective, they would harm the people we are most concerned about – the Africans and those white South Africans who are having to maintain some standard of decency there’.
“Needless to say, Wilson had neglected to ask any of the people he claimed to care so much about within South Africa, what they wanted him to do – impose sanctions or not?
“On 17 November 1964, the Labour government announced the imposition of an arms embargo against South Africa though it maintained that this only applied to ‘future contracts or export licences’. Existing contracts were to be fulfilled ‘on the grounds that their cancellation would … entail serious financial and commercial consequences and might endanger [Britain’s] staging and overflying rights in South Africa’.
“Shortly after this, the Labour government announced that the shipment of 16 Buccaneer aircraft (and the necessary spare parts), ordered and partly paid for by South Africa when the Conservatives were in power, would also be allowed because to cancel the contract would have involved ‘the loss of an export order of £25m and the liability to pay compensation to the South African government’. “Harold Wilson’s Labour government also refused to join in rendering support to South Africa’s political prisoners through the South African ‘Defence and Aid Fund’ as recommended by the United Nations. The British Foreign Office’s view was that the political prisoners whom the Fund was supposed to help (including Mandela) had been convicted for attempting the violent overthrow of a government with whom Britain had diplomatic relations.
“British policy towards sustaining apartheid got worse during the days that Margaret Thatcher became prime minister. She taunted the Commonwealth by saying that Britain would apply sanctions only to a ‘tiny, tiny’ quantity of ‘Krugerrands’.”
The youth glances again at his nano-computer. A speech made by Nelson Mandela on 5 May 1993, to a joint-sitting of the British Parliament (the House of Lords and the House of Commons) rolls up the screen. These passages in the speech catch his eye:
Mr Mandela: “Within this historic enclave [the Houses of Parliament] … there is … the reality that, from here, there issued decisions which imposed on my own country and people, a condition of existence which condemned us, as South Africans, to seek to resolve our conflicts not through peaceful means but by other than peaceful means. Your right to determine your own destiny was used to deny us [the right] to determine our own…
“History brought our peoples together in its own peculiar ways. That history demands of us that we should strive to achieve, what you, through the rediscovery of the practice of democracy, achieved for yourselves…
“South Africa has been on your national agenda in various ways since the 17th century, when the ships of the English East India Company sailed around the Cape. In more recent times, and with regard to South Africa, the great pre-occupation of members of these Houses of Parliament, the British government and the public at large, has been with the issue of apartheid.”
Okay, the youth says to himself, so Mandela has acknowledged the relationship between himself, as a representative of the people of South Africa, and the British people. Ah what’s this, too? He sees “Address of the president of the Republic of South Africa, Nelson Mandela to the joint houses of Parliament of the United Kingdom, London 11 July 1996”. And then come the words that seem to explain everything:
“Perhaps the fact of our presence here… might serve to close a circle which is 200 years old. I say 200 years because the first time this country entered ours as a colonising power was the year 1795. There are some parts of our country which, to this day, have many towns and localities which bear the names of British places and personalities, some of whom played an important role in the process of British colonisation which started in 1795.
“To take only one of these – the Eastern Cape – it has such names as Port Elizabeth, East London, Grahamstown, King Williamstown, Alice, Albany, Somerset East, Fort Beaufort, Fort Glamorgan and simply, Queenstown. Here, too, is to be found what is called the ‘1820 Settlers Monument’ built in tribute to British colonists who came to occupy land seized from our forebears…
“Had those forebears had the advantage of education and access to your outstanding cultural heritage, they would have found the words of one of the citizens in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus most apposite to describe their attitude towards the Great Britain of the day. Let us hear the disenfranchised and dispossessed citizen of that day: ‘We are accounted poor citizens, the patricians good; What authority surfeits on, would relieve us... The leanness that afflicts us, the object of our misery, Is as an inventory to particularise their abundance; Our sufferance is a gain to them. Let us revenge this with our pikes, ere we become rakes: For the gods know. I speak this in hunger for bread, And not in thirst for revenge.” (Coriolanus: Act 1, Scene 1.)’.”
The youth pauses. “Ei, Mandela is awesome,” he says to himself. “The guy is here telling his hosts unwelcome truths, using their own best writer, Shakespeare, as his spokesman. Just wicked!” He continues to read:
“For a century after that cry of despair would first have been heard, what defined the relations between our peoples was a continuous clangor of arms, one of whose military highlights was the famous Battle of Isandhlwana, when the Zulu armies won the day. Eight decades ago, my predecessors in the leadership of the African National Congress came to these venerable Houses to say to the government and the legislators of the time that they, the patricians, should come to the aid of the poor citizens.
“With no [Shakespearean] ‘pikes’ to accompany them, because the British armies had [by then] defeated and disarmed them, they spoke eloquently and passionately of the need for the colonial power to treat them as human beings equal to the 1820 Settlers, and others who wafted down from Europe before and after 1820.
“As eloquently and passionately, the British rulers of the day spoke in these Houses to say they could not, and would not, amend their agenda with regard to South Africa, to address the interests of that section of our population which was not white. Despite that rebuff and the terrible cost we had to bear as a consequence, we return to this honoured place neither with ‘pikes‘, nor a desire for revenge, nor, even, a plea to your distinguished selves to assuage our hunger for bread. We come to you as friends…
“Even in the most lifeless of historical seasons, 200 years would be too long a period for the force of change not to break free… Racism is a blight on the human conscience. The idea that any people can be inferior to another, to the point where those who consider themselves superior define and treat the rest as sub-human, denies the humanity even of those who elevate themselves to the status of gods. We take this opportunity … to pay tribute to the millions of Britons who, through the years, and like others everywhere else in the world, stood up to say – no to apartheid! Our emancipation is their reward…
“In this regard, our presence here today might… symbolise the closing of a circle which, for us, has been two centuries in the drawing. For centuries, an ancient continent has bled from many gaping sword-wounds. At an earlier time, it lost millions of its most able sons and daughters to a trade in slaves which defined these Africans as fit for slavery because they were African.
“To this day, we continue to lose some of the best among ourselves because the lights in the developed world shine brighter. An ancient continent disgorged into the hands of foreigners, what lay in its bowels and in the fertility of its soils, seemingly so profusely that it had to send scouts here to ascertain whether it was true that the streets of London are paved with gold!”
Our youth pauses. You mean Mandela told them all this in their own Houses of Parliament? Like the African chieftain that he was, he was talking to them in proverbs, though the ordinary meaning of the words was plain enough. Did they really understand what he was saying, I wonder! (To be continued)