When Nelson Mandela looked at the Palace of Westminster with Oliver Tambo – the legendary anti-apartheid politician – in 1962, the pair noticed there was no statue of any black person in Parliament Square, former Cabinet Minister Lord Peter Hain told an audience at Speaker’s House.
“Little did Mandela know that 45 years later, in 2007, he would be at the unveiling of a statue of himself in that same square,” he added.
Lord Hain made the observations at a Speaker’s House reception to mark the centenary of the birth of Nelson Mandela, who after 27 years in prison went on to become the first black president of South Africa in 1994.
More than 100 parliamentarians, diplomats, business people and those who were active in the anti-apartheid movement joined the gathering, along with musician Jerry Dammers, who wrote the influential 1980s’ hit “Free Nelson Mandela”.
Lord Hain, a life-long anti-apartheid activist, friend of Mandela, and author of ‘Mandela – His Essential Life’ said the most famous political prisoner in the world “had a touching faith” in parliamentary democracy, particularly British parliamentary democracy.
Commons Speaker John Bercow said he was struck by Mandela’s “complete absence of bitterness” despite a lengthy incarceration. The fact he “could shake the hand of his jailer” told “you everything about the man that you should want to know”, he said.
“In terms of principle, courage and indefatigability - and uncomplaining readiness for personal sacrifice in pursuit of a higher goal - you’d probably be hard pressed to match, let alone surpass Nelson Mandela,” he added.
Thembi Tambo, South Africa’s High Commissioner to the UK – also the daughter of Oliver Tambo – described Mandela as “a source of inspiration”. She said:
“He’s effected change in other people who never knew him – just because of what he did and how he led his life,”
The United Nations has declared Mandela’s birthday on 18 July ‘International Mandela Day’, with people encouraged to do something on that day to put his ideals of service, respect and dignity into action.