Marching barefoot for Mandela, rebel cricket tours and children’s Gothic imagination

Mandela was above all a politician, but also became like Jesus in that his name was invoked to support all sorts of improbable causes.

The influx of world leaders and international celebrities for Nelson Mandela’s memorial service and funeral must be straining South Africa’s resources. Perhaps the poor folk in Soweto and elsewhere feel pride that so many great figures arrived to pay homage. But it is rather patronising of us to assume that is so. I suspect they would prefer the money to be spent on improved housing, schools, health services and water supplies and would see these as a better memorial to Mandela.

What a pity that, in his last will and testament, the great man didn’t insist that his funeral was for South Africans only and instruct the Camerons, Obamas, Winfreys and Bonos to miss out on a giant photo opportunity and stay at home. Judging by the singing during speeches at the FNB stadium in Johannesburg, many ordinary South Africans would have approved.

Batting away the critics

Mandela, whether or not he was a saint, was above all a politician, capable of reversing long-held principles when necessary. Consider, for example, the remarkably hasty rehabilitation of South African cricket. For years, the anti-apartheid movement, supported by the African National Congress (ANC), battled to isolate South Africa and stop overseas teams going there.

The ANC rejected the argument that sport was separate from politics. Even when the government grudgingly allowed racially mixed teams, the ANC said that while apartheid remained in the wider society, non-whites could not compete on equal terms. There could be “no normal sport in an abnormal society”.

After his release, Mandela himself lobbied for South Africa’s readmission to international cricket and sent ANC officials to Lord’s to plead its case. Success came in July 1991, only weeks after the main pillars of apartheid law were repealed and with democratic elections still three years away. Before the end of the year, South Africa was playing internationals against India. The largely white team, with token non-whites, was almost identical to the one that played an English rebel touring team, led by Mike Gatting (now president designate of the MCC), in 1990, amid mass protests. Mandela’s political goal was to secure white assent to a peaceful handover of power. “Sport is sport and quite different from politics,” he explained, in defiance of everything anti-apartheid activists had said for 30 years.

Brighton to bath

My role in the struggle was insignificant and inglorious. In April 1964, as the Rivonia trial concluded, I was a first-year student at Sussex University. Overnight, we marched 53 miles from Brighton to London, singing “Balls to the Bourgeoisie” and other ribald revolutionary songs, to join a Trafalgar Square protest rally. I carried a banner but, being 19, not an umbrella or any protection (including sturdy shoes) from what proved to be the biggest downpour to hit mid-Sussex in a century. Wet, filthy, exhausted and in my case barefoot, we reached our destination in no mood to listen to speeches.

A fellow student rang Westminster School, which he had left the previous year, and pleaded with the housekeeper for baths. She magnanimously granted this privilege to three of us but only after we listened silently to a 15-minute pro-apartheid lecture in which she said the Rivonia defendants should be hanged. We then treated ourselves – student grants then being munificent – to a first-class train journey home on the Brighton Belle. None of us, I guess, would have managed well on Robben Island.

Co-opting Mandela

Mandela became like Jesus in that his name was invoked to support all sorts of improbable causes. In the 1980s, Tory ministers introduced the first legislation allowing schools to opt out of local authority control. At a dinner, a teachers’ union leader, opposed to the policy, lamented to me how a school near his home was among the first to take this route. “And,” he gasped, “it’s called the Nelson Mandela school. Surely they’ll have to change the name.” I pointed out that Mandela, then still in prison, probably held no opinions on “opted-out” schools. My interlocutor was having none of it. “It is impossible to think,” he declared, “that such a good man would want his name associated with such wickedness.”

Have a proper gander

I have been sent a copy of Dare You?, an anthology of Gothic writing by 12- and 13-year-olds at Richmond Park Academy, south London. The stories are riveting and surprisingly sophisticated, suggesting the authors have drawn deeply on the traditions of Gothic fiction. Read this – you can buy it for £4.99 – and you will never again believe the propaganda against state schools.

Nelson Mandela the politician, shaking hands in the Rotunda of the US Capitol with Bill Clinton. Photo: Getty.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 12 December 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Power Games

Steve Garry
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The footie is back. Three weeks in and what have we learned so far?

Barcleys, boots and big names... the Prem is back.

Another season, another reason for making whoopee cushions and giving them to Spurs fans to cheer them up during the long winter afternoons ahead. What have we learned so far?

Big names are vital. Just ask the manager of the Man United shop. The arrival of Schneiderlin and Schweinsteiger has done wonders for the sale of repro tops and they’ve run out of letters. Benedict Cumberbatch, please join Carlisle United. They’re desperate for some extra income.

Beards are still in. The whole Prem is bristling with them, the skinniest, weediest player convinced he’s Andrea Pirlo. Even my young friend and neighbour Ed Miliband has grown a beard, according to his holiday snaps. Sign him.

Boots Not always had my best specs on, but here and abroad I detect a new form of bootee creeping in – slightly higher on the ankle, not heavy-plated as in the old days but very light, probably made from the bums of newborn babies.

Barclays Still driving me mad. Now it’s screaming from the perimeter boards that it’s “Championing the true Spirit of the Game”. What the hell does that mean? Thank God this is its last season as proud sponsor of the Prem.

Pitches Some groundsmen have clearly been on the weeds. How else can you explain the Stoke pitch suddenly having concentric circles, while Southampton and Portsmouth have acquired tartan stripes? Go easy on the mowers, chaps. Footballers find it hard enough to pass in straight lines.

Strips Have you seen the Everton third kit top? Like a cheap market-stall T-shirt, but the colour, my dears, the colour is gorgeous – it’s Thames green. Yes, the very same we painted our front door back in the Seventies. The whole street copied, then le toot middle classes everywhere.

Scott Spedding Which international team do you think he plays for? I switched on the telly to find it was rugby, heard his name and thought, goodo, must be Scotland, come on, Scotland. Turned out to be the England-France game. Hmm, must be a member of that famous Cumbrian family, the Speddings from Mirehouse, where Tennyson imagined King Arthur’s Excalibur coming out the lake. Blow me, Scott Spedding turns out to be a Frenchman. Though he only acquired French citizenship last year, having been born and bred in South Africa. What’s in a name, eh?

Footballers are just so last season. Wayne Rooney and Harry Kane can’t score. The really good ones won’t come here – all we get is the crocks, the elderly, the bench-warmers, yet still we look to them to be our saviour. Oh my God, let’s hope we sign Falcao, he’s a genius, will make all the difference, so prayed all the Man United fans. Hold on: Chelsea fans. I’ve forgotten now where he went. They seek him here, they seek him there, is he alive or on the stairs, who feckin’ cares?

John Stones of Everton – brilliant season so far, now he is a genius, the solution to all of Chelsea’s problems, the heir to John Terry, captain of England for decades. Once he gets out of short trousers and learns to tie his own laces . . .

Managers are the real interest. So refreshing to have three young British managers in the Prem – Alex Neil at Norwich (34), Eddie Howe at Bournemouth (37) and that old hand at Swansea, Garry Monk, (36). Young Master Howe looks like a ball boy. Or a tea boy.

Mourinho is, of course, the main attraction. He has given us the best start to any of his seasons on this planet. Can you ever take your eyes off him? That handsome hooded look, that sarcastic sneer, the imperious hand in the air – and in his hair – all those languages, he’s so clearly brilliant, and yet, like many clever people, often lacking in common sense. How could he come down so heavily on Eva Carneiro, his Chelsea doctor? Just because you’re losing? Yes, José has been the best fun so far – plus Chelsea’s poor start. God, please don’t let him fall out with Abramovich. José, we need you.

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism