Nelson Mandela’s appearance at a 1993 rally in Glasgow’s George Square represented the zenith of a decades long fight to bring to an end apartheid, writes Martyn McLaughlin
When the slender, white-haired figure walked out onto the stage, the reception from an ecstatic crowd would have sent a chill down the spine of even the most world-weary rock bands.
Even though squalls of rain were lashing down on the civic heart of Scotland’s biggest city, thousands of expectant spectators had been waiting hours for the special moment - for some, it had been years.
The rally in Glasgow’s George Square on 9 October, 1993, represented the zenith of a decades long fight to bring to an end apartheid in South Africa, a campaign which inexorably centred around the system’s most iconic victim. The audience, several thousand strong, would not be disappointed.
Dressed in the sombre black suit of a statesman, a beaming Nelson Mandela emerged to rapturous applause and cheering, waving to the crowd before delivering a simple but powerful speech.
“The people of Glasgow were the first in the world to confer on me the Freedom of the City at a time when I and my comrades in the ANC were imprisoned on Robben Island serving life sentences which, in apartheid South Africa, then meant imprisonment until death,” he said.
“You, the people of Glasgow, pledged that you would not relax until I was free to receive this honour in person. I am deeply grateful to you and the anti-apartheid movement in Scotland for all your efforts to this end.”
Mandela’s appearance in Glasgow that day epitomised the powerful bond forged between Scotland and the anti-apartheid movement over more than three decades and thousands of miles.
In the years that followed his hard-won freedom, he made several visits to this country, and time and again, he spoke of his gratitude for the solidarity shown to him and his cause by ordinary Scots.
The joyous rally in George Square - the most high profile of his Scottish engagements - was a priority for Mandela at a time when his diary was fit to burst, but he regarded the trip as a necessity, a way in which to repay a debt to the city.
Indeed, his attendance at the rally was 12 years in the making. At a time when Mandela was regarded by many with distrust, rather than a global hero, Glasgow broke the mould, conferring upon him the Freedom of the City.
In 2011, a commemorative plaque was unveiled by anti-apartheid activist Professor Denis Goldberg at Glasgow City Chambers, marking the 30th anniversary of the former South African president being granted the award, despite the fact he was incarcerated on Robben Island.
The move represented the triumph of an anti-apartheid tradition which had been prevalent in Scotland since the early 1960s, and became officially known as the Scottish Committee of the Anti Apartheid Movement (SCAAM) in 1976.
It was, though, not without its detractors; as The Scotsman noted in its report, the ceremony was boycotted by Conservative members of the council, with some in the party of the opinion that Mandela was a terrorist. Yet the significance of occasion was clear - no less than 17 Commonwealth countries were represented by their High Commissions or commissioners, and the original guest list of 200 had to be extended to 500.
Unveiling the plaque in 2011, the city’s then Lord Provost Bob Winter struck a prescient note when he said: “I am proud to be associated with a city that took a stand and acknowledged the courage of Nelson Mandela. The political landscape at the time was unforgiving and our predecessors suffered a great deal of ill-informed and unjustified criticism.
“However, they took their case to the world, and were vindicated as the apartheid regime crumbled and Nelson Mandela took his true position as leader of a free, non-racial and democratic South Africa.
“When Glasgow awarded him the Freedom of the City, he was a political prisoner; he is now a true political and moral icon of our age.”
Indeed, the original award, given on 4 August 1981, was seen to set an example for all of Scotland, Britain, and the wider world, making clear that to support Mandela’s cause was to support the very tenets of freedom and democracy. In the years that followed, other cities such as Aberdeen, Dundee, Newcastle, and Sheffield would follow Glasgow’s lead.
In his memoirs, Mandela himself acknowledged how the honour had bolstered his spirits, writing of how it helped remind him that the world outside his prison cell had not forgotten.
When Dr Michael Kelly, Lord Provost of Glasgow from 1980 to 1984, made the award to Mandela in absentia, he quoted a stirring extract from a statement the man himself had made at the opening of his defence case at Pretoria Supreme Court in April 1964.
“I have dedicated myself to the struggle of the African people,” it began. “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
In 1986, Glasgow’s solidarity with Mandela was further strengthened in audacious fashion when one of the city’s most central locations, St George’s Place - home to an annoyed South African Consulate, who had endured innumerable protests on their doorstep - was renamed Nelson Mandela Place.
Brian Filling, who was chair of SCAAM, recalled: “The symbolism of renaming the street in which the South African consulate sat actually proved to be a very effective contribution to isolating the regime.
“Yes, it was controversial at the time but now it’s actually a proud thing for Glasgow. In a few short years, the way he [Mandela] was regarded was very different, from being a terrorist to being president and it’s now a tourist attraction. People pass it and ask the question, why was this street named Nelson Mandela Place?”
It was for such sentiments that Mandela, then aged 75, came to Glasgow in 1993. As well as attending the George Square rally - where he famously broke into dance alongside singer Mara Louw - he accepted his accolade at a reception at the City Chambers, receiving it “with humity and gratitude,” and acknowledging the “distinguished place”
the city had carved for itself in the global battle against apartheid.
Four years later, Edinburgh’s city fathers emulated their Glaswegian counterparts by bestowing the freedom of the city on Mandela. In stark contrast to his visit in 1993, however, the ceremony was a private affair, lasting just 15 minutes in the unlikely environs of the restaurant of the Caledonian Hotel, thanks to the tightness of the then South African leader’s programme - the same day, he met with Prime Minister Tony Blair and others in St Andrews at the biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting.
He did, however, find time to give a characteristically eloquent acceptance speech, remarking: “It is no individual achievement you are celebrating. Through me, you are paying tribute to the whole South African nature for their courage in struggle, and for their boldness in forsaking the conflicts of the past and uniting to work for a better life for all.”
Mandela’s last visit came in June 2002, when the Nobel Peace Prize winner returned to Scotland to hold a private meeting with Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi, the man convicted of the Lockerbie meeting.
The engagement at Barlinnie prison gave the elder statesman cause to reflect on his own incarceration at the hands of the apartheid regime, and Mandela cast doubt on Megrahi’s conviction, describing his imprisonment as “psychological persecution.”
Afterwards, Mandela expressed a desire to return to Scotland in the near future, but the opportunity never came. For those who spent time with him in this country, however, there can be few regrets. They witnessed first hand the power of his oratory and the quiet dignity of his life story - Scotland been there by his side on the long walk to freedom.