The Nelson Mandela Freedom March

Nelson Mandela was to be 70 on 18th July 1988. I proposed the motion at the ANC International Solidarity Conference in Arusha, Tanzania, the previous December that the world should celebrate his 70th birthday by demanding the release of Nelson Mandela and all political prisoners from apartheid prisons. So I was committed to joining the Nelson Mandela Freedom March on its way from Glasgow to London, mobilising the people of Britain in the campaign against apartheid.

There were 25 marchers on the road each day, one for each year that Mandela had been in prison for his opposition to apartheid to that date. One person each day led the march and the rest of us lined up in 8 columns of 3 people. There was one banner at the front and one at the back telling people who we were and what we were doing. I joined the march at Macclesfield.

Wherever we went – Congleton, Warwick, Northampton, Bedford, Haringey – we were met by cheering crowds of supporters, singing South African freedom songs. The streets were swathed in the green, black and gold colours of Nelson Mandela's organisation, the African National Congress. Over 20 million people were boycotting apartheid goods. This was a popular movement taking on our government which, under Margaret Thatcher, refused to apply sanctions to South Africa. So we, the ordinary people of Britain, did it ourselves. We took on the supermarkets, the banks, the oil companies and all the allies of apartheid, and we imposed sanctions. We forced Barclays Bank out of South Africa. We made companies stop selling apartheid goods. We refused to buy apartheid produce. Worldwide, the campaign forced the apartheid regime into near bankruptcy.

As we marched we demanded that apartheid South Africa should give up its hold on Namibia, that the Sharpeville Six should be reprieved, that Mandela and the other political prisoners should be released, and that apartheid should be ended. Tory MPs, like Ann Winterton and John Carlisle, attacked us for supporting a terrorist. The people of Congleton ignored Ann Winterton, their MP, and turned out in their hundreds to greet us, singing “Nkosi Sikelel'i Afrika”, the anthem of the African National Congress. The Tory press hated us. The Prime Minister was scornful of our efforts. But we were determined. We were unstoppable. There were only 25 of us on the road each day, but there were millions across Britain who supported the campaign against apartheid.

When we got to Warwick, the dam burst. The Sharpeville Six were reprieved. They were not going to hang. The demonstration that day was noisy, exuberant and joyful. There was dancing and a mixture of bhangra drumming and bagpipes. Then we went on to Leamington Spa where some Tory in a Rolls-Royce thought that he could drive his car into us and knock one of us down. Norrie banged the roof of his car and he got out in a fury, and then realised that there was one of him and 25 of us, so he got back in his car and drove off. That was the level of hatred that we faced. Sean who had been knocked down was not hurt, other than some bruises.

The closer we got to London the more confident we became of our reception. At Northampton, my left knee gave way. I got a doctor to strap it up and carried on with the march. It has never properly recovered. I am very proud of this injury sustained in the cause of liberty, justice and the anti-racist struggle.

When we finally got to London, Bernie Grant, one of the first Black British MPs to be elected to Parliament, hosted a reception for us at Alexandra Palace. The next day, 50,000 people joined us at Finsbury Park to march to the rally at Hyde Park that afternoon. It was a carnival through the streets of London, with people leaning out of windows and from balconies to watch as we passed. At the Shell garage in Camden Road we began the chant “Isolate Apartheid! Boycott Shell!” and everyone joined in. When we finally reached Hyde Park, we were greeted by every Bishop in the Anglican Communion as the Lambeth Conference adjourned to join us. They were led by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Archbishop Trevor Huddleston, the President of the Anti-Apartheid Movement and Robert Runcie, the Archbishop of Canterbury. I have never seen so many purple cassocks in my life.

We were greeted by Jim Kerr and Simple Minds singing “Mandela Day” and Jerry Dammers and the Specials AKA singing “Free Nelson Mandela”. When we marched onto the stage, quarter of a million people cheered us. Jo Beck spoke for the marchers in one of the most emotional moments of my life. The cheering echoed across the world.

8 months later, Namibia became independent. 18 months later, we reassembled in Trafalgar Square in London, and Nelson Mandela Place in Glasgow, and across the whole country, cheering again, as Nelson Mandela walked free. On 27th April 1994, the first democratic election took place in South Africa.

The people of Namibia and South Africa had achieved their freedom. They would have done this themselves, with us or without us. International solidarity was one of the weapons in their struggle and the Nelson Mandela Freedom March was the tipping point.

So when people tell you that you cannot change the world, do not believe them. We did. You can. Amandla Awethu! (Power to the People).

apartheid, solidarity, protest, community rebellion