History is as complex as it is fascinating


Telling President Nelson Mandela’s life story to, and inspiring a new generation – and cutting through some of the media and political spin at the same time

I start this blogpost with footage of Mandela’s first TV interview in 1961

Now, think about the world that he was living in at the time – just over fifty years ago. Those of you in your teens and twenties, your grandparents might have been a similar age that you are now, in the early 1960s.

A couple of years after Mandela’s interview above, President John F Kennedy made the following speech

There is a strong reason why I’m linking to both those speeches: You are hearing both historical figures in their own words at the time the events were happening. Not interpreted by someone else, not spun by anyone, not re-written by anyone, but in their own words.

You’ll hear a lot of politicians and media figures eulogising over Mandela. You’ll also see columnists casting their critical eye over said political and media figures – such as Marina Hyde (see here) asking where such figures and/or institutions were at the height of the Apartheid Regime’s power.

What’s striking about the footage and the tributes of recent days is how strong political adversaries are paying similar tributes. Cold war foes Cuba and the USA, to Middle Eastern adversaries Iran and the Gulf states were all united in their praise. One of the debates for historians is what was it about Mandela that united pretty much the entire planet to praise his life and legacy.

“Yeah Pooffles, when are the ‘orrible Toreez gonna say sorry?!?!”

Cameron did so in August 2006, stating the following:

“The mistakes my party made in the past with respect to relations with the ANC and sanctions on South Africa make it all the more important to listen now. The fact that there is so much to celebrate in the new South Africa is not in spite of Mandela and the ANC, it is because of them – and we Conservatives should say so clearly today.”

At the time, Cameron was criticised by Norman Tebbit – a minister in Thatcher’s Government. His point was that the political context 20 years earlier was very different – before going on to state that Thatcher’s policy was a success. Right on the first bit, wrong on the rest of it?

[Updated 9 Dec to add]

Tipped off from a tweet by Guido Fawkes, the Margaret Thatcher archive at Churchill College Cambridge has a very interesting personal note from Thatcher to the then President of South Africa dated October 1985 – see here. She states:

“I continue to believe, as I have said to you before, that the release of Nelson Mandela would have more impact than almost any single action you could undertake.”

The newsclip on Channel 4 here makes for interesting viewing (see here) from some of the major UK-based figures such as long time anti-apartheid activist Peter Hain MP, and Charles Powell – one of Thatcher’s advisers.

[Cont from original blogpost…]

The questions that need to be put to any politician (irrespective of disposition/views/philosophy) changing their minds on any policy are:

  1. What was wrong with your original policy and why?
  2. What have you learnt as a result of your change of mind and why?

In a nutshell, answers to those questions should – if answered substantially and truthfully should show whether it genuinely is a change of heart, or whether it is just spin to cover up history that looks bad today. Think the controversy over Iraq with Labour just after Ed Miliband became leader (see here). Ultimately, it is up to individual politicians – current and ex, to account for the decisions they took.

Nelson Mandela and Fidel Castro

What fascinates me about the strong friendship between the two – despite the lack of a common language, is the historical context. It’s a context all too often ignored. At the start of this blogpost, you saw Mandela’s first TV interview, as well as a TV address by President Kennedy. Consider that the year after Kennedy’s assassination Mandela was jailed. Consider too that a year prior to that, Fidel Castro was at the centre of a crisis that could have blown up the world – the Cuban Missile Crisis. Consider too that the year before Mandela’s release, the Berlin Wall fell. ***A lot*** of things happened while Mandela was in prison, with virtually zero contact with the outside world. When Mandela was finally released in 1990, one of the few world leaders and heads of government that was on his side in the early 1960s and was still around in 1990, was Fidel Castro.

Cuban intervention in the national liberation struggles in Africa during the 1960s-1980s was significant – as this article demonstrates. Also, have a look at this short video clip.

Cuba was one of the few nation states to send its troops into battle against the armed forces of Apartheid South Africa – at significant cost and risk too. The war in Angola is sometimes called ‘Cuba’s Vietnam’ but arguably it had the same impact on South Africa too. Cuba struggled following the collapse of the the Soviet Union (where much of its exports went to, and from where it received subsidised oil). When communism ceased to be the geo-political threat in 1990, the ‘anti-communist’ reasoning as to backing South Africa evaporated.

Thatcher’s fervent anti-communism shaping her views of the ANC

The full quotation from Thatcher infamously labelling the ANC as a ‘typical terrorist organisation’ is as follows:

Just before you, I just remembered I did not answer the second part of the previous question put to me about the ANC, when the ANC says that they will target British companies. This shows what a typical terrorist organisation it is. I fought terrorism all my life and if more people fought it, and we were all more successful, we should not have it and I hope that everyone in this hall will think it is right to go on fighting terrorism. They will if they believe in democracy.

Now let’s look at the context:

The first is that you have an organisation/movement saying that it will target UK firms. The second is that Thatcher only three years previously had survived the Brighton Bomb, which had claimed the lives of several of her party, and injuring others – including Norman Tebbit above. Thirdly, the Cold War was the centre of global politics – with Cuba and South Africa’s proxy war in Angola reaching a very bloody climax. Thatcher’s commitment to the ‘free market’ would also have incorporated the right of UK firms to trade legally anywhere in the world. As a former colony with lots of mineral deposits (indeed, that’s what drove Cecil Rhodes’ colonial adventures a century before, leading to the Boer War of 1899-1902) the UK had massive and longstanding business interests – interests that infamously remained during the apartheid era. Firms such as Barclays and BP were later to be targeted in post-apartheid lawsuits. Finally, the ongoing economic turmoil of the 1970s & 1980s meant that the UK governments would have been nervous about doing too much damage to an important trading partner.

Now, none of the above makes it morally right for the governments of the day to have had policies that they had. As someone passionate about history, I seek to understand why things happened the way that they did. One of the big ‘untold’ stories for me about the defeat of apartheid was the Cuban intervention in Angola. That was a long and bloody conflict – one from which the country is still trying to emerge from. You may not hear about this conflict being mentioned much in the coverage of Mandela’s life, but it helps explain why Mandela and Castro were on such good terms.

Trying to get into the mindset of what pre-1990 was like

I first became aware of ‘the news’ on TV during the late 1980s. Reports covering violence in Northern Ireland, the Middle East, Angola and South Africa were regular. The phrase: “Protestors threw petrol bombs and police replied with tear gas” still rings in my mind. My first introductions to South Africa in formal education was in Year 7, and a book called ‘Journey to Jo’Burg’. It was about the plight of a Black mother working in a White family’s house. The separation of the mother from her children to look after those of a wealthy family, the pass controls and the heat of the buses still strike me today. Several years later I learnt about the fate of Steve Biko – see here – and the plight of White liberal newspaper editor Donald Woods (see here) who was forced to flee South Africa. It was the fate of Biko and Woods that really drove home for me just how nasty the regime that persecuted them and millions of others, was.

[The Woods’ family’s decision to flee was] hastened by Security Police harassment of his family, including bullets being fired into the family home, and a T-shirt soaked in acid powder being sent in a parcel to his youngest daughter, five-year-old Mary.

This for me put the context of the violent news reports I watched as a young child of what was happening in South Africa.

When Mandela was finally released in 1990, a newsreader very familiar to watchers of Channel 4 was finally allowed into the country

Jon Snow was one of many UK journalists banned from South Africa until then.

The power of the internet and digital media

As I mentioned above, the internet and digital media means we can hear the historical voices in their own words. No one else needs to do the interpretation. I encourage you to have a look online for the original footage of Mandela in 1961, 1964, 1990 and 1994. Hear him in his own words and draw your own conclusions.

With that, I will leave you with footage of Martin Luther King in his final speech before his assassination.

Sleep well Nelson – and Martin too.


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