If you’ll excuse me, I’ll add to the acres being written about him with my own reflections and what lessons we might draw in South Leeds.
I seem to have been aware of Nelson Mandela all my life. My mother was active in the Anti Apartheid movement in the hot bed of radicalism that was Hertfordshire in the 1960s. My father, I’m proud to say, was a “banned person” in South Africa. He had the crazy idea that black ministers should be leading the Methodist church there. We never have Cape or Outspan fruit in house and even as a child I understood why we were boycotting them.
Today everyone recognises Mandela as a great man, but they didn’t back then. The apartheid regime was clinging on to the old ways of empire. The British (and the French, the Dutch and Belgians) ruled their colonies on the basis of white privilege and vicious repression of the local population.
Many people in Britain couldn’t see what was wrong with this and were particularly upset when it interrupted cricket and rugby matches. In the 1980s Thatcher was still calling Mandela a terrorist and the Young Conservatives produced a poster calling for him to be hanged. Meanwhile no party I attended for a decade was complete until The Special AKA’s “Free Nelson Mandela” had been played.
Things changed when he was released from prison. Not immediately, but after he was elected President and especially after the Rugby (Union) World Cup which South Africa hosted and won in 1995. Then everyone thought he was a great man.
Why was he a great man? He was strong, principled, he stood up for what he believed in, he was persistent and resilient, he didn’t give up. But there was more. Majority rule was not going to be minority rule in reverse. He built bridges, he attempted to re-build South Africa as the rainbow nation. It’s not there yet, but the country could have followed a very different path.
Mandela ended the belief that racism was OK, or OK in some circumstances. He embodied the idea that every human not only has equal rights, but also can live together.
South Leeds is not an apartheid state, but we’re not very good at mixing. I had no qualms about moving to Beeston in 1984, but Belle Isle or Middleton were a different prospect. It was all nonsense of course. All our communities are full of good people doing wonderful things (most of the time).
It doesn’t help that Leeds is built like the spokes of a wheel. I’m always amazed at how close Belle Isle is to Beeston if you cycle through Middleton Park. By car, and especially by public transport you’ve got to go into the city and out again.
Within Beeston we have the division of Cross Flatts Park. Today this is commonly seen as a racial divide with most local Asians living “below the park” on Beeston Hill. This idea fails to recognise two facts, firstly that many Asian people live “above the park” and secondly that many more white people live “below the park”.
It seems the park has been a dividing line for generations, perhaps since it was created and the housing was built in the 1890s. It seems to me it’s a socio-economic divide. By one crude measure, most houses below the park don’t have gardens, most above the park do.
Despite all my blathering on in this column every Friday, I’m someone who likes to do something rather than just talk about it. I got involved with running Beeston Festival because even if it’s just for one day, the festival turns the park from a barrier into a bridge and brings the community together.
It’s also why I found myself at a meeting this week helping a new project get off the ground in Beeston. We plan to have exciting and interesting opportunities to play sport, to learn skills and have fun that will attract young people from all our communities. Bringing people together to do something, a joint venture, is the best way to break down barriers, break myths and build friendships.
I’ll be back next week with more of my views from South of the River. If you’re on Twitter, you can follow me: @BeestonJeremy.