We had no personal connection with South Africa but were drawn into the movement by the horror of apartheid, by the courage of those who stood against it and by recognising the complicity of our own country in the apartheid regime’s longer-than-fitting survival.
In 1976, shortly after the Soweto uprising, the ANC asked me to go to South Africa because at that time I was co-ordinating the student campaign in the UK against apartheid. The ANC wanted me to meet those involved in the uprising to explore how we could work together to build international solidarity.
I travelled widely throughout the country until I was forced to leave, having drawn the attention of the South African security forces.
Among many powerful memories, I recall staying illegally in an Indian district in Cape Town in a house with a distant view of Robben Island.
The woman whose house it was, who was not herself involved in politics, was probably puzzled by my presence there, having done a favour for a friend in putting me up. I probably did not recognise the risk that I was putting her at by being there illegally.
We were talking one morning in her kitchen, and she pointed across to Robben Island and said: “When you go back to your country, tell your Government that that’s where our leaders are – not in Pretoria.”
Sadly, it took many more years before this country did recognise that that is where the leaders were and did recognise the extraordinary leadership of Nelson Mandela.
I am proud that my city of Sheffield played its part in that movement. Hundreds were involved in the campaign against apartheid and thousands more took up the call by refusing to buy South African goods, changing their bank accounts, challenging the trade missions that went from the city and standing outside our theatres and other big venues when those who breached the cultural boycott of South Africa performed there.
Our city council led a network of local authorities against apartheid. One of our universities divested itself of shares in companies operating in South Africa and another named one of its major buildings after Mandela. Our churches took up the cause and our trade unions pressed the boycott of South Africa in the workplace. All were inspired by Mandela, the ANC and the values of the freedom charter agreed at the Congress of the People in Kliptown in 1955.
It is important that we learn the real lessons when we reflect. The eulogies of the past few days have glossed over the reality of the struggle. The story has been told almost as if white South Africa had, in time, come to their senses, realised that they had got it wrong with apartheid and thought it was about time they released Mandela and negotiated a peaceful settlement.
Actually, however, the Prime Minister was right to say that justice in South Africa was not handed down; it was hard-fought for. The truth is that freedom was not benevolently gifted to Mandela and the ANC by the regime. They fought for it and they won it in a victory over the apartheid state. They were opposed at every step of the way – brutally – by the regime and were too often let down by western governments who put their economic interests first, blocked sanctions, applied the veto at the UN Security Council time after time during the ’80s and condemned Mandela as a terrorist.
It was only after years of civil resistance, often at appalling personal cost to the people of South Africa, that that resistance had made South Africa ungovernable. It was only when, despite the opposition from governments including ours in the 1980s, sanctions had made South Africa more isolated internationally that the regime recognised it had no future.
It was driven to the negotiating table by the uncompromising campaign led by Nelson Mandela and the ANC, and in the negotiations before and after his release he made no concessions.
Compassion, forgiveness and generosity were the characteristics of Mandela’s post-apartheid nation building, but it was his political vision, judgment and uncompromising determination that created the opportunity to build a new nation.
Of course, Mandela could, as others have said, have led a revolution that simply turned the tables. As many have pointed out, he did not. Instead of revenge, he sought reconciliation.
To honour his life, we should be learning from his values, seeking to build understanding and respect between communities, challenging at every opportunity the politics of hatred and division, committing ourselves to the cause of equality and justice, applying those values in our debates on domestic policy – on immigration and on human rights and when we consider our role in the world – and not making the mistake again of being on the wrong side of justice.
Standing up for those values, even when it is uncomfortable or when it is inconvenient, would be the measure of our tribute to Nelson Mandela.
*Paul Blomfield is the Labour MP for Sheffield Central. This is an edited version of his Commons speech in tribute to Nelson Mandela.