The sense of achievement was palpable. I was elected to Shetland Islands Council in 1994. I was the youngest member of the new council. The local paper dubbed the new intake as the Young Turks.
This week I was reminded of that election by another that happened in 1994. One where turnout was higher and it mattered more. People waited for hours to vote. A people who were free and had the right to vote for the first time. The first free and democratic elections in South Africa. Those elections were won by Nelson Mandela and the ANC. as the week of mourning for Mandela’s death continues all my memories of 1994 came flooding back.
In 1982 Glasgow City Council passed a declaration calling for Mandela’s release. I was studying higher modern studies at Lerwick’s Anderson High School.
The class teacher was profoundly affected by apartheid. A few weeks into the class we all were. We studied the grotesque oppression of the black nation by the minority whites, the homelands that were little more than state-sponsored prisons of deprivation and no human rights, the areas that were white only. The US civil rights movement had overcome barriers to where blacks sat on the bus or which school to attend, but in South Africa the entire apparatus of the state was used to devastating effect in suppressing a whole people.
Studying the mechanisms of apartheid was one thing, but the entire edifice was brought alive by the people. The men incarcerated on Robben Island out in Cape Town Bay. I learned then about their treatment, the length of sentences imposed by a white court on black men – the world-wide campaigns to set them free.
I read about the Rivonia trial when Mandela was cast into prison to disappear from view. his much-repeated closing speech for the defence and of defiance – a speech memorably quoted by President Obama at the memorial service this week that was a call to democratic arms across the globe.
In 2009 former Presiding Officer Sir George Reid was the Queen’s representative at the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. Then I met someone I had only seen on television through the apartheid years – the Archbishop of Cape Town, Desmond Tutu, who addressed the Edinburgh gathering that year. His theme was tolerance. The Church was riven by a fight over gay clergy and in his address Tutu substituted gay for black. it was a speech of immense moral worth and was unarguable in its conclusions. The night before, at a dinner hosted by George Reid, the assembled guests waited for the great man to arrive. Tutu was preceded by that infectious laugh as he swept into the reception, with everyone dressed in their finery, he was wearing a Mandela-style printed shirt. As I watched the Soweto service this week it was Tutu who caught the eye.
In his flowing robes he alone silenced the noisy crowd. ‘I want to hear a pin drop, he declared’, and you could. In honour and memory of the incomparable Nelson Mandela.