He was in prison longer than I’ve been alive, he was released before I was even born and he retired before I was even aware of what apartheid was. I’m certainly no expert in South African politics. So what gives me, a twenty-one year old Londoner with no experience of such hardship, the right to write about Nelson Mandela? Well as the title suggests, I met him once.
It was possibly the most terrifying day of my life, but definitely the most memorable and inspirational. I travelled to Mozambique with Gordon Brown (the then Chancellor of the Exchequer) as part of the Global Campaign for Education – working to achieve the Millennium Development Goal of securing every child a basic primary school education by 2015. As someone at school myself at the time, it was completely eye-opening to witness the stark contrast with my own life, where great comprehensive school education had been handed to me on a plate. The schools were barren and basic, but the children were amazingly grateful and pleased to have visitors (one small child was so enthusiastic to show me their well, the school’s pride and joy). The appreciation of these children compared to the nonchalant and carefree attitude of kids back in my East London school was sobering and really made me realise how easy my life was.
I interviewed Mandela in the presidential palace in Maputo. As he approached, hand outstretched, he said ‘You must be Lily!’ – the fact that he had taken the time to remember my name was astonishing. The butterflies in my stomach calmed down a little as we began chatting about the weather (relentlessly hot) and our flight. He was a completely charming and warm man, who seemed to be just as interested in me as I was in him (although I’m sure he wasn’t quite!). He had come out of retirement to support our campaign, and when I asked him why he simply replied with ‘You cannot break a promise to a child.’ The G8 leaders had made promises to billions of children worldwide, and these promises were, in his eyes, unbreakable.
He is undoubtedly the man who inspired me to study politics, teaching me that the world is there to be changed and improved. OK I may sound naively optimistic, a typical dewy-eyed young person set out with clichéd ideas to change the world, but why not? I’m not saying I’ll find a cure for AIDs or end world poverty, but I sure as hell can do something to help. Mandela said to me, “You might think you are powerless, but if all the children of Britain act together you can be more powerful than any government.” He taught me not to succumb to the idea that individuals can’t make a difference, if everyone thought that, we wouldn’t get anywhere.
Now Mandela is 94 and in very poor health. I will be eternally grateful I had the incredible opportunity to meet him and it’ll be a story to tell my children. He did more for South Africa, and the world as a whole, on his own, than many governments, bureaucracies and institutions achieve together. If I manage to be a fraction of the person that he is, and manage to make some sort of change, I will be very satisfied indeed.