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19 December 2013

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.

By Peter Wilby

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”.

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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 Success came in July 1991, only weeks after the main pillars of apartheid law were repealed and with democratic elections still three years away.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.