Remembering a hero's welcome on 20th anniversary of Nelson Mandela's visit to Leeds

Celebrated in one of the most defining moments in Leeds’s living history, Nelson Mandela’s appointment as honorary son has long symbolised the city’s liberation and will.

Former South African president Nelson Mandela joins in the dancing on stage with Ladysmith Black Mambazo at the Millennium Square in Leeds where he was made an honorary freeman during his first visit to the north of England. PA Archives

Today marks 20 years since that day, when the anti-apartheid campaigner was made Freeman of Leeds to rousing cheers that rang for a full minute from a crowd playing witness to history.

Thousands had waited patiently for hours in anticipation of his arrival, jubilant in song and then respectful in silence before a man who for many had come to represent freedom and hope.

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Such was his stature that an opening slip, expressing his joy at a visit to “Liverpool” rather than Leeds, was swiftly overlooked, with a quiet speech and humble thanks resonating instead.

Former South African president Nelson Mandela during his speech at the Millennium Square in Leeds. PA archives

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As he officially opened Millennium Square, the former South African president had spoken of the nearby gardens dedicated in his honour, remarking that few might recognise what it meant to him.

“For me to see this garden reminds me of my childhood and the happy days associated with it,” he had told a humbled crowd.

“That is one thing which makes me at peace with the world and being at peace with the people of Leeds.”

Thousands of people listen to former South African president Nelson Mandela deliver his speech at the Millennium Square in Leeds, where Mandela was made an honorary freeman during his first visit to the north of England. PA archives

Anti-apartheid campaigner Mr Mandela, who spent 27 years locked in a small cell in Robben Island Jail, became a beacon of hope when he made his famous ‘long walk to freedom’ in 1990.

Rather than becoming embittered, he had set about reuniting his country, becoming president of South Africa as well as a global ambassador for peace.

When he died in 2013, at the age of 95, his honorary city of Leeds held services to honour his life.

Freedom of the City

Former South African president Nelson Mandela arrives at Mandela Gardens in Leeds where he was made an honorary freeman during his first visit to the north of England. PA archives

Before he spoke that day as he was made Freeman of the City in 2001, he had paused first to shake hands with those co-ordinating a choir, having already made an indelible mark on children backstage.

For one six-year-old girl from Chapeltown, whose name had been pulled from a hat to present him with artwork, he had kissed her on the cheek and told her he would never forget her.

“I don’t think I realised what a big deal it was at the time,” Esta Suma later said. “It really changed me.”

To this day, said Dr Alexander Beresford, associate professor in African Politics at the University of Leeds, the former president remains one of the most revered politicians of all time.

Despite having served only a single term, and in doing so escaping the same scrutiny as his successors, Mandela maintained a myth-like status as a representation for justice, he said.

“For many he would have been a symbol, of not only combatting racism but of standing for freedom,” said Prof Beresford.

“This was something he was willing to live for, and something he was prepared to die for."

A struggle for liberation

Mandela had garnered global support despite once being denounced and to turn this around, said Prof Beresford, shows the mark of man who even in power responded magnanimously.

To symbolise him as a single man who brought an end to apartheid would do his comrades a disservice, Prof Beresford added, but Mandela did come to represent a struggle for liberation.

“Mandela will be revered for sacrifices he made all through his life, his willingness to learn from his mistakes and to jettison some of the views he held as a younger man," he said.

“He was ultimately a figurehead for the struggle for justice against racism, and was willing to put himself on the line for that. That is the way he will always be remembered.

“He never wanted to be anointed as a saint,” he added. “He was this great, fantastic negotiator, but also someone who was willing to make concessions. That is part of his legacy too.”

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