Nelson Mandela & Me – the activists’ stories

Thursday, June 14, 2018 - 10:17

This summer Queen Elizabeth Hall plays host to an exhibition celebrating 100 years since the birth of Nelson Mandela, the anti-apartheid revolutionary and political leader who would become South Africa’s first black president. Ahead of Nelson Mandela: The Centenary Exhibition, three prominent anti-apartheid activists recount the time they met Mandela, and his enduring influence on them.  

Meeting Mandela – Chitra Karve

Chitra Karve was an activist and member of the Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM), in this role she coordinated Nelson Mandela’s meeting with the family of Stephen Lawrence. She is currently chair of the AAM’s successor organisation, Action for Southern Africa (ACTSA).

Above: Chitra Karve (far right) with Mandela and Stephen Lawrence’s family during his visit to London in May 1993. Photo: Copyright Andrew Wiard 


Having worked on the Nelson Mandela – Freedom at 70 campaign at the Anti-Apartheid Movement, I became deeply involved in the account of Mandela’s life. The day that Mandela walked free I remember being awash with emotions, willing him to be everything I and others had wanted him to be. And he was! And more. He was that someone rare and special, a leader who has everything, high principles, humility, intelligence, fierce energy, enormous charm and charisma. He was also so human, with his insistence on wearing fabulous shirts, his likelihood to break into dance at any moment, his genuine smile. On his arrival in Britain I was a volunteer steward outside his hotel, keeping the welcoming crowd from swamping him, and so I had a fabulous view as he emerged from the hotel, and took a sneaky photo on an old camera. I treasure that image.

Meeting Madiba for the first time was bittersweet. He was visiting London in May 1993, shortly after the race hate crime that killed Stephen Lawrence. Those supporting Doreen and Neville Lawrence approached me and others to ask Mandela if he would meet with them. Despite his crazy schedule, he made time to meet with the Lawrences, and that is when I met him. I realised that while I was meeting someone I seemed to have spent all my life wanting to be near, there was something much bigger and more important than me and what I wanted going on in that room. Grieving parents were fighting to make their voices heard, struggling to understand why anyone could possibly have a reason to have killed their child.  Stephen had been killed only two weeks earlier, and my job, which had been to help to make the meeting happen, was over.

I learned something more about Madiba that day, he had a quiet, respectful quality, listening gravely to the mother and father, giving them time and space, encouraging them to tell him more, saying little, simply being a witness to what they were experiencing. That meeting put the murder on an international stage, and followed by the continued and indomitable efforts of the Lawrences, changed the way in which we tackle racism in the UK.

Someone asked me recently what I wanted for Mandela now. I want his dream of a ‘rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world’ to become a reality. I worry about the dream not just for South Africa, but for all of us. Then I remember something Mandela said: ‘It always seems impossible until it’s done’.


Breakfast with Mandela – Lela Kogbara

Lela Kogbara was an anti-apartheid activist and member of the Black Solidarity Committee of the Anti-Apartheid Movement, she was also chair of the AAM’s successor organisation Action for Southern Africa (ACTSA) 2005 - 2012. Lela is the vice chair of the Nelson Mandela Centenary Organising Committee.

Meeting Nelson Mandela at Buckingham Palace – July 1996

Above: Lela Kogbara (far right) with left to right Richard Caborn, Archbishop Trevor Huddleston, Nelson Mandela, Father Nicolas Stebbing, Lord Bob Hughes and Ben Jackson.


Having hardly slept, I got out of bed at about 5am on 12 July 1996 ecstatic and petrified. I was going to have breakfast with Nelson Mandela.

Arriving in Bob Hughes’ car at the front gates of Buckingham Palace at about 7.45am it seemed bizarre to wind down the window and say ‘we’re here to see President Mandela’ but even more bizarre for the guard to say ‘come on in’. As we walked up to the front door (or whatever one calls that particular entrance to Buckingham Palace) we were greeted by another chirpy chap who apologised for the fact that our breakfast would be delayed by about thirty minutes because Margaret Thatcher had been squeezed in at the last minute to see Mandela before breakfast. How ironic. The woman who had described Nelson Mandela and the ANC as terrorists and who had refused to back the AAM call for UK sanctions against the real terrorists – the apartheid regime.  

Mandela had wanted to meet with Archbishop Trevor Huddleston and five of us were invited to accompany him. Trevor, his assistant and Richard Caborn were already there when Bob, Ben Jackson and I arrived. A few rude remarks were made about Margaret Thatcher, who was sitting in the corridor clutching her handbag, but other than that our little group shared stories of past subversive activities designed to overthrow apartheid and laughed at the set-backs and triumphs. We were in Buckingham Palace about to meet a black president of South Africa – a man who had spent 27 years in prison. This was a triumph that we did not need to articulate.  

We were introduced to Mandela. He stretched his hand towards me and said ‘I am pleased to meet you’. I could hardly breathe and said ‘I am pleased to meet you too’. I found myself incapable of intelligent conversation. He must have been briefed that I was Nigerian and from Ogoni and at some point he asked me about Ken Saro Wiwa, who had been executed about eight months earlier. He noticed I wasn’t eating and asked if I was on a diet.   

So many people want to meet Mandela-the-superstar.  There are thousands of people who deserved to meet him more than I did, many of who will remain anonymous in their sacrifice.  I thought that I was prepared to do justice to the privilege that had been given me but with hindsight I clearly was not. He seemed so ordinary in so many ways – noticing things and talking to us as if we were his equals. No sense of self-importance. No pomposity. Perhaps that is the most extraordinary thing about him. He carries his greatness with humility and authenticity.  

Nelson Mandela and all those in South Africa and around the world who fought (and in many cases died) to end the evil of apartheid are the inspiration behind my commitment to ACTSA’s work – to make the hopes of a free South Africa a reality.


What Nelson Mandela Means to Me -  Brian Filling

Brian Filling was an activist and Chair of Scotland Anti-Apartheid Movement in the 1990s. Brian is now South Africa’s honorary consul in Scotland and chair of Action for Southern Africa Scotland (ACTSA Scotland)

Nelson Mandela in Glasgow - October 1993

Above: Nelson Mandela dancing with singer Mara Louw in Glasgow’s George Square with Brian Filling (far right). Photo: Copyright David Pratt


Principled, inspiring, dignified, charismatic, heroic are just some of the words which come to mind when one thinks of Nelson Mandela. And, they are all true.

I spent a weekend with Madiba as coordinator of his visit to Glasgow to collect the Freedoms of nine UK cities in 1993. He lived up to the legend he had become during his 27 plus years in prison. He moved seamlessly from one event to another, engaging in one-to-one dialogue, small group conversations and communicating with huge crowds: he inspired everyone throughout. He has this effect everywhere.

What made him a world icon?

African culture came from consensus, and consensus comes from listening to people and respecting them. Imperialism, colonialism and apartheid tried to destroy African culture. Nelson Mandela’s beliefs, attitudes, personality and character are a product of this background and his life of struggle. It is as a result of the lengthy Treason Trial, the mass campaigns against the Pass Laws, the armed struggle, his final arrest and prison years that Mandela developed into such an outstanding leader.

He became the first among the group of exceptional South African leaders, which included Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu and Govan Mbeki.

It is this background and life of principled struggle which allowed Nelson Mandela to re-found his country thus becoming a beacon throughout the world for all those, especially young people, opposing racism and exploitation and striving for a better and peaceful life.


Nelson Mandela visits Hlengiwe

Nelson Mandela: The Centenary Exhibition takes place at Southbank Centre 17 July - 18 August 2018. The exhibition explores the life and times of the great leader and marks the centenary of his birth.

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Main image at top of article: Nelson Mandela visits Franschoek, where he alights at his "favorite view site" in South Africa to take in the breathtaking scenery, 29 October 1996. Photography copyright: Louise Gubb