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Today marks the 20th anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s historic Walk to Freedom.

I remember watching with tears in my eyes as the former ANC leader walked out of prison after 27 years and into the history books.


It was a moment that hadn’t seemed possible in those dark days of the 1980s when the Government under Thatcher refused to back sanctions as she believed they would hurt the poor black majority more than the rich white minority.

Famously at a Conservative Youth meeting (I’m not sure that’s what they ACTUALLY called the now defunct group), many of the future Tories wore Hang Nelson Mandela T-shirts and called him a terrorist.

Thatcher maintained her position even after many African nations boycotted the 1986 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh because of Britain’s continuing ties to the regime.

“The ANC is a typical terrorist organisation… Anyone who thinks it is going to run the government in South Africa is living in cloud-cuckoo land”
-Margaret Thatcher

If I were being generous, I could say her views were probably shaped by her hatred of the IRA and it’s continued terror attacks in the UK, I can’t imagine I’ll ever be generous to Lady T.

The fight against the evil that was apartheid was a long and hard.

Some national governments backed sanctions but many more individuals made personal decisions about which banks they would use and which products they would buy based on whether those companies were helping to prop up the South African government.

This put pressure on companies and many pulled out of the country.

It was these acts of individual protest, along with the countless amazing acts of heroism from the country’s black majority, and allies among white South Africans, that lead to the downfall of apartheid and the birth of Mandela’s rainbow nation.

Even at the time I remember many of the great and good warning that the country would descend into hell. With bloodshed and recrimination once the angry black mob was set free.

I even heard some say that the blacks were not capable of running a first world country.

Now 20 years later South Africa is a vibrant nation full of opportunity and hope.

It’s also about to host the biggest sports event in the world (sorry Olympic fans but it is) and Mandela, now 91, is lauded by almost everyone as a living legend.

I’ve been to South Africa several times over the last few years and it seems unthinkable that the country I’ve come to love was once the pariah that I grew up hating.

The transition was largely peaceful and the lessons learned there have been used in post conflict areas like Northern Ireland and the Balkans.

Of course, there is still extreme poverty and centuries of racism and hatred haven’t vanished overnight. There is a massive crime problem and true integration is slow, but the country didn’t collapse and there has been no large scale bloodshed.

I personally think this transition could only happen under the stewardship of a man like Madiba.

He left prison with no baggage of resentment and no axe to grind.

“Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.”
― Nelson Mandela

After all of those years incarcerated, he had lost none of his yearning for justice, he was simply determined to lead his country to freedom.

“I am fundamentally an optimist. Whether that comes from nature or nurture, I cannot say. Part of being optimistic is keeping one’s head pointed toward the sun, one’s feet moving forward. There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That way lays defeat and death.”
― Nelson Mandela

The Struggle, as it was known, is the best example of why it’s important to keep going when you’re campaigning against something you know to be wrong.

Even when the chips seem stacked against you and the playing field feels more like a cliff face.

“The Arc of the Moral Universe Is Long, but It Bends Toward Justice”, meaning that just causes always win in the end.”
-Martin Luther King Jnr

As veteran human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell reminded us when he spoke at our Campaigning Conference in January, you just need to keep going and keep believing.

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  1. A man for our time and for all times

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