Let’s get one thing straight. I never met Nelson Mandela. And, amid the media storm following his death, I feel as if I’m the only person who didn’t.
He’s been around throughout my life.
I wasn’t always conscious of him, though. I was a country boy, neither politically nor globally aware.
When protests against apartheid were first growing in the late 60s and early 70s, I was at school or university.
I’m not sure I understood or was sufficiently alert to develop any strong views: perhaps at the back of that also lay the kind of routine, unconscious racism of middle-class white Brits back then. After all, South Africa was another country: its people were different, and a long way away.
Even I grew up, eventually: I hope it’s impossible to work in education without confronting issues of human rights, equality, gender, class, culture and race.
By the time I was becoming a parent myself in the mid-1980s, people like me were refusing to buy South African goods, joining in the consensual boycott even while the UK government declined to take a lead.
We rejoiced when Mandela was released. We celebrated when the first free elections took place in South Africa and Mandela became president.
We’d already witnessed the collapse of Soviet communism: people-power, justice and democracy seemed to be triumphing and vindicated. Those were heady days.
In 1997 I took part in a symposium on education and democracy in Durban. It was my first visit to Africa: I even fitted in a trip to a game reserve, Umfolozi in KwaZulu-Natal. The wildlife was wonderful: but it couldn’t outdo the pervasive optimism and belief in the future.
To be sure, we avoided lawless areas: there was an edgy side to the new South Africa.
But everyone looked to Mandela for a lead, believing passionately and implicitly in the peace and reconciliation that he preached. They were eager to follow him into a bright and harmonious future.
I wanted more people to experience that astonishing national mood. I led a school sports tour to South Africa in 2002, taking 90 boys and girls to play football, hockey and netball in the Johannesburg area and Cape Town.
There were many moving moments.
The whole party, two coaches full, fell silent when we visited Soweto, and particular the Hector Pieterson memorial – that shrine to a twelve year-old boy shot dead by police during protests.
The picture of his sister’s face contorted with grief as a young man carried the boy’s limp body beside her went viral in 1976 and swung world opinion against the apartheid regime.
In such townships as Soweto and, in Cape Town, Langa the black communities were powerfully positive even though they were still living in poverty: townships are scary places.
We also heard well-off white families who hosted our pupils, and their white teachers, referring as everyone else did to “our father Mandela”, and speaking with total belief in the future.
All this was led by one man.
So powerful an example was his, so free from desire for retribution or revenge, and so genuine in his thirst for peace, reconciliation and understanding, that his sheer force of positive personality was able to neutralise the extremists, the angry, the dangerous. Peter Hain MP, himself South African born, described Mandela to the BBC as “A beacon of light and liberty that shone across the world”.
President Obama quoted Mandela himself.
When asked if he was a saint (which he was by most measures, surely), Mandela replied: “I’m not a saint – unless you think a saint is a sinner who keeps on trying”.
He never stopped trying, an example to all, young and old, of endurance and courage.
That example will live on. The world’s a poorer place without him: but it is our privilege to have lived in his time.
No, I never met him. How I wish I had.