Mandela: A statesman and a crowd puller

WHETHER in or out of prison, Nelson Mandela was a crowd puller.

The man dubbed the Unofficial President of the World could bring adoring crowds out onto the streets of Dublin and London like no-one else.

Mandela was awarded the Freedom of the City of Dublin while in prison in Sept 1988, almost 18-years before local hero Bob Geldof.

He was named the greatest humanitarian hero of the past 60 years in a poll by the Red Cross in 2004. More than a quarter of the 2,000 people surveyed chose him ahead of Princess Diana, followed by Bob Geldof, Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Kofi Annan and Tony Blair, and Winston Churchill.

An appearance at the opening of the Jun 2003 Dublin Special Olympics triggered the kind of excitement last seen when Pope John Paul II visited Ireland in 1979.

Rock legend Bono raced on stage to hail Mandela as 85,000 fans raised the roof in Croke Park. He dedicated U2’s classic anthem ‘Pride’ to the great man.

Despite officially retiring in Jun 2004, his charity work for Aids victims and anti-poverty campaigns saw him continue to clock up the miles.

In Feb 2005, Mandela, introduced by Bob Geldof as “the Unofficial President of the World”, returned to Trafalgar Square, in London, to ask rich countries such as Britain to help make poverty history.

Ahead of addressing finance ministers from the G7 countries later that week, he told the crowds: “Poverty is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings. Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity, it’s an act of justice.”

Both rich and poor flocked to see him in Trafalgar Square in 1996.

And thousands more came to the square again when the frail statesman launched the Make Poverty History campaign nine years later.

An earlier generation, who knew him only through grainy black and white photographs, stood on the same spot for freedom vigils during his 27 years in jail.

It was a joyous, colourful scene when he stepped out on to the balcony at South Africa House in London in Jul 1996, two years after becoming South Africa’s president.

On that emotional state visit, he thanked the British people for their support in destroying apartheid.

He said: “I wish I had big pockets because I love each and everyone of you. I would like to put each and everyone of you in my pocket and return with you to South Africa.”

The pomp and ceremony of the state visit quickly disappeared in scenes unprecedented for a foreign leader, as good-natured crowds leapt over security barriers to try and touch Mandela.

In the post-apartheid era, he became a tireless traveller, making up for his years of isolation.

He relished forging foreign friendships and the world’s foremost power brokers competed to host grand receptions in his honour even though his speeches were often controversial.

Mandela was said to enjoy a great friendship with Queen Elizabeth.

His first visit to Britain was in Apr 1990 as deputy president of the African National Congress.

His first meeting with the then prime minister Margaret Thatcher was in July of that year. Just ahead of that meeting, he said Britain should start negotiating with the IRA, leaving Thatcher’s Government ruffled. But their talks ended with Mr Mandela describing her as “a woman I can do business with”.

In May 1993, Mandela shone a light on Britain’s racial problems when he met the grieving parents of murdered black teenager Stephen Lawrence.

Mandela, who had addressed both Houses of Parliament the night before, said: “We are deeply touched by the brutality of this murder, even though it is commonplace in our country. It seems black lives are cheap.

“The evil of racism is taking away innocent lives. The problems of racism and fascism is threatening the whole world.”

He received numerous awards. Glasgow gave him the Freedom of the City in 1981 while he was in his 17th year of imprisonment. By the time he collected the award in Oct 1993, nine regions of Britain, Aberdeen, Dundee, Glasgow, Greenwich, Islwyn, Hull, Midlothian, Newcastle and Sheffield, had granted him the honour.

He was back in London in 2007 when his statue joined those of other great leaders such as Sir Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln and Benjamin Disraeli in Parliament Square.

Richard Attenborough, director of the anti-apartheid film Cry Freedom, and Wendy Woods, the widow of newspaper editor Donald Woods, campaigned for the statue.

It was the brainchild of Donald Woods, a committed anti-apartheid activist forced to flee his country with his wife and five children and come to the UK.

And in August of that year Mandela and his wife Graca Machel joined the then prime Minister Gordon brown at the unveiling of the 9ft-high bronze.

At the unveiling, Mandela said: “Though this statue is of one man, it should in actual fact symbolise all of those who have resisted oppression, especially in my country.”

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