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How a great leader showed his gratitude to Glasgow

Nelson Mandela visited Glasgow in October 1993, before his election as President of South Africa, to receive the Freedom of nine UK places at a special ceremony in the City Chambers.

CROWD PLEASER: Nelson Mandela was greeted with rapture when he addressed a huge rally in George Square on October 9, 1993, Picture: David Pratt
CROWD PLEASER: Nelson Mandela was greeted with rapture when he addressed a huge rally in George Square on October 9, 1993, Picture: David Pratt

I had been appointed to liaise between Mandela's office, the African National Congress and the nine (Aberdeen, Dundee, Glasgow and the district of Midlothian in Scotland; Islwyn in Wales; Hull, Newcastle and the London Boroughs of Lambeth and Lewisham in England), in making the arrangements for the event some two years previously.

Nelson Mandela and his delegation arrived in Glasgow on the evening of Friday October 8 1993 and on entering the Hilton Hotel, residents left the dining rooms and bars to give him a standing ovation. I spent time with him that evening briefing him on the weekend's events.

On Saturday delegations from each of the nine were placed three to a room in the City Chambers to make their presentations to Nelson Mandela. It had not been easy to get all the representatives to come to Glasgow and some were unhappy about being given only five minutes with him.

But Mandela was in fine form, shaking hands, talking to every representative personally, making impromptu and knowledgeable speeches, the famous smile never leaving his face. One council leader said it was the most wonderful five minutes of his life: he was astonished when I said it had only been three-and-a-half minutes!

After the individual ceremonies, Archbishop Trevor Huddleston, on behalf of all the cities, made a presentation before an invited audience of some 400 people in the Banqueting Hall.

Mandela said: "It is a special privilege to be a guest of this great city of Glasgow. It will always enjoy a distinguished place in the records of the international campaign against apartheid. The people of Glasgow in 1981 were the first in the world to confer on me the freedom of the city at a time when I and my comrades were imprisoned on Robben Island serving life sentences, which in apartheid South Africa then meant imprisonment until death.

"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 …

"Above all, it was an act of commitment. 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."

Following the ceremony, Mandela and I returned by car to the hotel and I was able to point out Nelson Mandela Place. He said that he had heard about the re-naming in 1986 when he was in still in prison and it had lifted his spirits. We talked about Oliver Tambo, Mandela's close friend and comrade, who had led the ANC in exile and had died earlier in the year, and who had launched the Glasgow-London Free Mandela march from Glasgow Green in 1988.

In the afternoon, a rally was held amidst torrential rain in George Square. Despite the weather, bad even by Glasgow standards, a huge crowd turned out and umbrellas were abandoned so as not to impede anyone's view.

When Nelson Mandela appeared on the stage in George Square he was given a rapturous welcome by the huge crowd. I introduced him as "Freeman of Glasgow, Freeman of Britain -and soon to be a free man in South Africa!"

In his speech to the rain-soaked crowd, Mandela talked of the "Third Force" in South Africa, stirring up violence as a proxy for the apartheid regime in its attempts to derail the elections to be held in April 1994. Some 10,000 people were killed between his release in 1990 and his election as president in 1994. He called for continuing solidarity with the South African people and again thanked Glasgow and the people of Britain for the wonderful support over the years.

A highlight of the rally was when Mara Louw, the South African singer who had flown in for the event, invited Mandela to dance in the middle of a song. And, there he was with a broad grin, dancing! It was as if the sun shone on the crowd as thousands of faces smiled in unison, expressing their delight.

Later that afternoon, a national assembly of local authorities and other guests was held in the Concert Hall. In his speech, Mandela thanked the local authorities for their activities against apartheid, including the boycott of South African products. He condemned the British Government for its opposition to sanctions and its long-standing support for the apartheid regime.

This gruelling schedule was not unusual for Mandela as he toured South Africa and the world winning support for the anti-apartheid cause. For a man of 75 he had incredible energy and stamina. He had clearly enjoyed meeting people and his lack of bitterness and calm and dignified demeanour won many admirers.

Next day a breakfast meeting was held with newspaper editors. When Mandela arrived for the meeting he was beaming and greeted me: "Good morning, Brian. I hope you are well. Thank you so much for yesterday's very special events."

He had risen at 5am, exercised and had breakfast. The newspaper editors had not been happy to attend an 8am meeting on a Sunday but he charmed them with his honesty, humility and candour. He began by saying he would deal with the questions uppermost in their minds: his personal relationship with his wife, Winnie, and his political relationship with Chief Buthelezi. He went on to talk about the situation in South Africa and his vision of the future. The meeting ended with heartfelt applause. It showed once again his great ability to make an indelible mark on people, including hard-bitten journalists.

He departed for Dublin later that morning and the next time I saw him was as a guest at his inauguration as President of the Republic of South Africa in Pretoria in 1994 following the first democratic election in that country. Over the years since then I have seen him on occasions and at various events. He retained his humour, charm and acuity of political insight.

Nelson Mandela will be remembered for his courage and commitment during his 27 years in prison; his leadership of the African National Congress and as commander-in-chief of its armed wing; his presidency of South Africa and the achievements of his government including creating one of the most progressive constitutions in the world; the provision of clean water, electrification, housing and education for millions previously deprived of them; and the reconciliation and regaining of human dignity for his people, the creation of the rainbow nation. He will join the pantheon of world-renowned great historical figures. It was a wonderful privilege to have known and worked with him.

Brian Filling is the honorary consul for South Africa in Scotland. He was chairman of the Scottish Committee of the Anti-Apartheid Movement from its founding in 1976 to its dissolution in 1994.

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