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In the presence of greatness: meeting Mandela

6 December 2013 | by Paul Brannen

Having been an Anti-Apartheid Movement activist while at Leeds University in the 1980s, I was lucky enough to land a full time job working for the Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM) at its headquarters in Mandela Street in Camden, London.

I was employed as the convenor of Southern Africa - The Imprisoned Society (SATIS). In this role, I was responsible for organising the campaign to release the political prisoners in South Africa, including those on death row and Robben Island, whose ranks included Nelson Mandela.

Nelson Mandela and Paul Brannen

Nelson Mandela shakes hands with Christian Aid's Paul Brannen

Mandela’s release

Not long after his release in 1990 after 27 years in jail, when he arrived in London a free man, I had the privilege of accompanying Mike Terry, Executive Director of the AAM, to the Churchill Hotel in central London to meet Mandela and his delegation.

Arriving at the hotel suite, Mike knocked on the door. It was opened by the extremely beautiful and striking Winnie Mandela, and in we went. 

Once seated, we were informed that Madiba was ‘resting’ after his flight and may or may not join us. So, on went the meeting without him, discussing with this staff and wife the itinerary for the next few days. 

Throughout the meeting Mike and I were very conscious that it was Mandela’s feet we could see at the end of the bed through the open door to our right. 

Occasionally, in the next 45 minutes, they crossed and uncrossed themselves, but alas they never moved from the horizontal to the perpendicular.  The meeting concluded and we returned to the AAM headquarters. 

Understandably, the staff immediately clustered around us.

‘Well, what was he like?’ They all wanted to know. 

Mike and I looked at each other, slightly embarrassed, and together replied: ‘Er, well we are not sure, we only saw his feet.’

  • I remember his height, his huge but soft hands and that amazing smile.'

Meeting the great man himself

Matters got better the next day at a reception at the house of the then Secretary General of the Commonwealth, Shridath Ramphal, when we finally got to meet the great man face to face.

I remember his height, his huge but soft hands and that amazing smile.

‘And what do you do?’ he asked.

‘I work for the Anti-Apartheid Movement’, I replied.

‘Ah, we have much to thank you for but there is still much work to do, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise’, came the response.

Honouring his memory

That we had been in the presence of greatness I never doubted, but I also knew that the struggle had made Mandela, not the other way round. 

Over the coming days and months there will be attempts to remove the struggle from the man – just as happened with Martin Luther King after his untimely death. 

Hence if we are serious about honouring the memory of Nelson Mandela then we should ask ourselves: which struggle am I going to commit to?

By idolising those we honour, we fail to realise that we can go and do likewise.

Find out more

Christian Aid today paid tribute to the ‘magnanimity and moral courage’ of South Africa’s first freely elected President, Nelson Mandela, who has died. 

 About the author

Paul Brannen

Paul Brannen is Christian Aid's Head of England - North and Central

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