I wrote most of this on 24 June. Nelson Mandela’s was still alive but his condition was reported as being “critical”, and I knew that when the end finally came I wouldn’t want to write anything. The end did come last night. By what I regard as a happy twist of fate, I was with my parents and sisters at the premier of the Mandela movie. We commented that the last time we were all together, just the five of us, no children, no partners, just us, was when we went to cast our votes in the first democratic elections, voting in Nelson Mandela as President of a free South Africa. I was so pleased we were all together when we heard the news.
Nelson Mandela is dead. He was a truly extraordinary human being and I am sure that there will be no end of tributes from people who knew him, who were inspired by him. He really was an inspirational figure. Certainly he was for me and my sisters (the Joseph Girls as we were and continue to be known by a particular generation of South African activists in spite of the fact our girlhoods are distant memories).
Growing up in London, Uncle Nelson loomed large in our lives. In South Africa my parents had been close to him and that friendship bound by shared political beliefs and values as well as a love good food and good company, endured despite imprisonment, exile, power, distance and age.
Freedom Charter, a photo of the 156 defendants of the Treason Trial (of which my father was one) and a photo of Nelson Mandela.
When other children looked at Christ on the Cross and wondered what he would think of their behaviour, I would look up at Uncle Nelson. He was the benchmark of goodness, of bravery, of honour. He had given up everything for his country, my country, and I really wanted to live up to him.
It is probably worth remembering that when I was a child and indeed until he was elected President, Mandela was far from an international icon with Bono, the Spice girls and all manner of other vacuous celebs without a political thought in their heads queueing up to be photographed with him. Most people in Britain hadn't heard of him and many of those who had regarded him as a terrorist. (There are in fact some people who hold public office today who wore "Hang Mandela" badges on their lapels when they were at university – but today is not the day to name and shame.) So there was no kudos for us Joseph girls in having a connection with him. But our parents didn't raise us to do things to score social points, so we looked up to him regardless and used him as a moral reference point - what would Uncle Nelson do, what would Uncle Nelson think.
His letters and cards to my parents from prison were received with huge excitement. His correspondence was severely limited by the South African regime. He was only permitted to send a handful of letters a year and even then there were restrictions on the number of pages he was allowed to write. The tiny script written on wafer thin paper had to be deciphered by my parents who read out his words with respect and joy that from all those thousands of miles away this man who had so encouraged them to take up the struggle remembered them. He joined us in celebrating births and weddings; he remembered birthdays and anniversaries; he sympathised over deaths.
And I suppose that is what struck when he was finally released from prison and I met him as an adult. Although he was clearly a Great Man with a huge number of things on his mind, he had an uncanny ability to remember everyday details of my life. Now I have worked for other Great Men and I know that besides each of them stands a great official who whispers in their ear as a new person approaches. You know the thing: “That is Joe Bloggs, you met him in such and such a place last year, wife does X and he is worried about Y". His interest and consideration was not prompted by whispering. Even when he met me out of context – not when I was with my parents, but when I was working, standing at the back of a Downing Street reception room or orchestrating a press conference, doing the kind of work that is normally invisible to Great Men. No matter who was there and what was happening, he would call me over to ask after my family, naming each of my sisters and their children, and if the Prime Minister was around he would demand to know in a very loud voice why I was working for the British and not him, glaring at TB before grinning widely. When after I left No 10 and went to make a film of him to promote equality for disabled people, he asked me if the reason I was involved was because of my disabled brother who died as a child when Mandela was still on Robben Island. It was the first time anyone had put the two things together – even me.
The world has lost a hero, a peacemaker, a visionary. South Africa has lost its greatest father, its founding President. And a few of us, I would say a lucky few, have lost an Uncle. But none of us should lose hope. As his handwritten inscription on the photo on my parents’ living room wall reads: “Those who have chosen freedom and who have banished fear from their hearts will win.”