Tonight (Thursday) I finished playing five a side football at 8:30pm, had a shower and then jumped in the car to go for my usual post match pint of Shandy at the Three Hammers in Mill Hill, with the rest of our football squad. As I put on BBC London, I was surprised to hear an unfamiliar voice reading a statement. I immediately realised that a major event had happened. Within seconds, it became clear that Nelson Mandela had passed away.
I am old enough to remember when certain members of the Conservative party would describe him as a terrorist, for wanting democratic representation for the majority of South Africans. At the time he was imprisoned by the Apartheid regime. I attended many protests, campaigning for Mr Mandela's release.
When that eventually came, I feared that a man so unjustly treated for so many years, on becoming president with a powerful mandate may misuse his power or seek to settle scores. I feared that all my hopes and aspirations for South Africa may disappear in a puff of personal vanity. Conservative friends would say "look what has happened elsewhere in Africa when people have been given such a mandate".
Mr Mandela spent his life confounding critics. He was a genuinely decent man, who didn't see his rise to power as an excuse to line his pocket and settle scores. He didn't fill posts with cronies and rob the country. Quite the opposite, Mandela became an example to all leaders everywhere. Despite his years in prison, he saw no need to settle scores. In doing so, he landed the moral high ground and exposed the lies of his critics and faced down the doubters.
South Africa has its problems (everywhere does). Perhaps the moment that best summed him up was when he donned a Springbok Rugby jersey, so long a sign of oppression, reclaiming the colours for the whole country. In that one symbolic move, he ended an argument and moved a nation forward a hundred years, making every citizen comfortable with themselves and their past. It also gave them a hope for the future.
Mandela had the air of a kindly and knowledgable uncle. A man who would always give the best advice and wouldn't judge too harshly when it was ignored. My biggest sadness for him was that his best years were given to the prison system. He is now at peace. If as I do, you believe people go to a better place, then I think Mr Mandela will be in the best seats. If you don't, simply be grateful that the world has been graced with his presence for the last 95 years. Mr Mandela, whereever you are, thank you so much for your courage, wisdom and strength. The world is a better place for your life and your struggle.
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