As the world began to mourn the death of Nelson Mandela last week, one of the first stories to emerge about the former South African president concerned a visit he paid to a city a few years after his release from prison.
Mandela, who spent 27 years incarcerated in Robben Island and Victor Verster, came to Glasgow in 1993 to thank the city for its support during his imprisonment and through South Africa’s Apartheid regime.
This wasn’t just a customary platitude from a man who would become South Africa’s president a year later. Glasgow’s support for the removal of Apartheid stems back to the 60s, where activist Brian Filling first campaigned for an end to systematic segregation in South Africa.
Mandela was regarded as a terrorist by many on the Right, including Margaret Thatcher, and was an uncomfortable subject for the majority who sat on the fence on Apartheid. As is now known, House of Commons speaker John Bercow was part of a group of young Conservatives who called for Mandela to be hanged, and David Cameron was compelled to apologise for his party’s stance on Mandela when giving tributes to the late leader. But, in Glasgow, a small group of activists had been active from the 60s onwards in trying to assist the African National Congress, and, as Mandela was increasingly singled out as a symbol of the anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa, the campaign began to gain traction.
In 1979, a lunch with the South African ambassador hosted by Glasgow Lord Provost David Hodge was to prove a turning point. Furious campaigners, who would often congregate outside the South African embassy on St George’s Place, arrived to protest at the City Chambers. This reaction encouraged the next Lord Provost Michael Kelly to put in place a motion to give Mandela the feedom of the city in 1981 - an example which many cities followed. He also launched a declaration the following year, signed by 2,500 city mayors, calling for Mandela’s release from prison.
It was against this backdrop that Nelson Mandela Place came into being. In 1986, St George’s Place was renamed - as you’d expect, a hugely embarrassing episode for the South African consulate.
During his visit to Glasgow, Mandela gave a speech thanking the city for its efforts: “Whilst we were physically denied our freedom in the country of our birth, a city, 6000 miles away, and as renowned as Glasgow, refused to accept the legitimacy of the apartheid system and declared us to be free, 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,”