Personal Memories of Mandela and the Fight Against Apartheid

10/12/2013 12:33 GMT | Updated 09/02/2014 10:59 GMT

Heartfelt tributes to Nelson Mandela have been flooding in from around the world. He was a global icon for truth, justice, democratic change and reconciliation. There was not a hint of bitterness for all those years he spent locked up in prison. When he smiled - a warm, open, generous smile - he quite simply made people feel better and believe that a fairer, more just world was possible.

But we should remember Mandela did not always evoke worldwide admiration and adulation. His was a lonely, tough fight against a brutal regime that locked him up for 27 years. During his time in prison he was a figure of fear for most white South Africans who were brought up on a diet of hatred and propaganda and saw him as a terrorist. Some Western politicians, particularly during the first 20 years of his imprisonment, shared a similar view and considered the African National Congress a terrorist organisation rather than a liberation movement. Mandela often wasn't lauded, as he is now, in Western capitals and was a remote, almost mythical figure, because he had been out of sight for so many years. There was not even an up-to-date photo of him, such was the tight security in which he was held. It was only in the 1980s that Mandela became a focus for global protest and his name became the rallying call for South African liberation.

In June 1988 I went to the Nelson Mandela 70th birthday concert at Wembley Stadium, aimed at raising worldwide consciousness of the imprisonment of Mandela. The event benefitted a number of charities and was broadcast to more than 600 million people. However, even at that time, the BBC was criticised in a motion in the House of Commons for "giving publicity to a movement that encourages the ANC in its terrorist activities". That movement was the Anti-Apartheid Movement and, at that time, the prospect of Mandela's release seemed completely unrealistic. Yet within 20 months he walked free.

For many of my generation it was the Anti-Apartheid Movement that gave us our first taste of campaigning - supporting the boycott of South African fruit, Barclays bank and taking part in demonstrations outside the South African Embassy in Trafalgar Square. In the 1980s I visited South Africa frequently as a programme officer for CAFOD, supporting a myriad of community groups and civil society organisations - some of which formed part of the United Democratic Front (UDF). I remember it as a grim, depressing, fearful time.

You felt worried as you arrived at South African passport control, not knowing if you were going to be allowed into the country, and then you had to keep a low profile as you moved around. Community development work, painstakingly built up over months and years, was frequently smashed. The pressure on community leaders, who stood up to the power of the state, was a constant threat and partner organisations were harassed with staff imprisoned. I remember the shock when I heard that Father Smangaliso Mkhatshwa, the head of the Catholic Bishops' Conference, had been tortured and Zwelakhe Sisulu, the editor of the New Nation newspaper, which we supported, was detained for two years. If this could happen to such high profile people, imagine how thousands of others felt. Of course the intention of the South African state was to instil widespread fear - but it didn't work.

It was a time when the ANC called upon the people to make the townships ungovernable and an atmosphere of mass insurrection prevailed. A national state of emergency was declared that lasted until 1990 and this was used to detain more than 300,000 people and to ban the UDF and its affiliates from all activity. In 1988 the South African Government introduced the Promotion of Orderly Internal Politics Bill which effectively banned 17 organisations, individuals and many activists who were aiming to bring about non-violent change. At that time South Africa's liberation felt a long way off - it didn't feel as if just one more push would bring down an incredibly powerful state with huge resources at its disposal which it was prepared to use against the majority of its people.

And yet two years later Mandela was free and quite quickly it felt that change was inevitable and irreversible. Now as we pay tribute to a unique and remarkable man we should never forget the loneliness and courage of his long struggle. As he said at his trial, he hoped to live to see a free and democratic society but he was also prepared to die for the ideal.

Solidarity with oppressed people is critical - it can make all the difference. The first time I saw Nelson Mandela was a few months after his release, in June 1990, when he came to a meeting of European charities in Strasbourg and thanked us for our support during the years of struggle. He knew the difference that support had made through those difficult times.

The last time I saw Nelson Mandela was at his 90th Birthday Tribute in Hyde Park in June 2008. At this time I had the role I am in now with ActionAid and, given my close personal links with the country, I was proud to work for a development agency that moved its headquarters from the UK to South Africa. This has been a great way to continue to work to end many of the injustices which are the legacy of apartheid. "

Our task now is to live up to that challenge