Friday, December 13, 2013

A teacher remembers Mandela's visit to Brixton

Graham Jameson (on the right in above picture), who some of you may know from his time as head of Edmund Waller Primary School in New Cross, recalls the day in July 1996 when he took children from Walnut Tree Walk school in Kennington to meet Nelson Mandela on his visit to Brixton:

'The picture I was looking for showed most of Nelson Mandela rather than just the top of his head. It also showed me shaking his hand. But I can’t find that. What we do have here is Mandela bending down to speak to Fola from my then school, Walnut Tree Walk in Lambeth. It’s a shame about the other one, but actually this is a better picture because it shows how Nelson Mandela was always a man of the people and especially a man for the children. On that same morning he’d been leaving the Dorchester in the official car to take the short drive to Brixton Recreation Centre. A friend and colleague of mine had taken a group of his children, from what would now be called a PRU, up to the hotel to waive as the car passed and Mandela stopped the vehicle and got out to talk to them. I couldn’t help thinking of those long and brutal years on Robben Island where he didn’t see his own children and never heard the sounds of children’s voices.

The flowers you can see that Fola has just presented to Mandela’s daughter, Zenani, are in a bouquet in the colours of the ANC that I got made up by a florist in Kennington. The florist had asked me if they were for someone special. Fola’s mum, Benedicta, was so proud of her and she was beautifully turned out. The same couldn’t really be said for me, though the tie and waistcoat did belong to my dad, a man whose sartorial facility I failed to inherit.

When it came to my turn to shake hands I found myself saying: “Welcome to Brixton, sir” –a greeting both brief and anodyne. Frankly the emotion of that meeting was so overwhelming that I couldn’t trust myself to say anything else. After he’d spoken to the people in the line-up (lead by Heather Rabatts in the white outfit) he and Prince Charles (on the far left of the picture) proceeded into the Centre. There were other people waiting to be presented inside but to get there he had to pass a crowd corralled behind a barrier. They were wild with enthusiasm, many shouting “Madiba, Madiba.” Mandela recognised an old comrade and, again ignoring protocol, walked across and embraced him. As he got into the Centre our children were playing their batucada instruments to welcome him. Of course he went over to them to thank them. One of the children said “Why are you crying?” to me and I could only blurt out: “Don’t look at me, look at him.”

Generally I’m with Bob in Subterranean Homesick Blues and ‘Don’t follow leaders/Watch the parkin meters’ but what was so clear that day was here was a man whose moral authority came not from populism but from a sort of nobility. When I think back on a longish career, I sometimes muse on failures and disappointments and ask myself what it all meant. Then I think back to that day with its transcendent feeling of hope and human affirmation and a little light of meaning goes on in my head'.

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