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Nelson Mandela: Glasgow's love for anti-apartheid hero

Links between Glasgow and the former South African leader go back decades.

Glasgow: Mandela in George Square to accept freedom of the city.
Glasgow: Mandela in George Square to accept freedom of the city. Glasgow Caledonian University Archives: Records of the Anti-Apartheid Movement Scottish Committee

"While we were physically denied our freedom, a city 6,000 miles away, and as renowned as Glasgow, refused to accept the legitimacy of the apartheid system."

That was Nelson Mandela's now famous speech from a wet and windy George Square during his visit to the city in October 1993.

The anti-apartheid revolutionary was in Glasgow to accept the freedom of nine UK cities awarded to him as he languished in a South African jail cell, and thank people for the support they had shown him and his country in their struggle against a racist and oppressive regime.

Glasgow was the first major city to give Nelson Mandela the freedom award as he was locked away in the infamous Robben Island prison.

Even before his visit, which took place a year before he was elected president, he had thanked the "citizens of Glasgow" for being the first to offer him the Freedom of the City, at a time when many others were still condemning him as a terrorist for his role in challenging the system of racial segregation in South Africa.

He was awarded freedom of the city in 1981 but the love affair between Glasgow and the political icon had begun years earlier when he was first imprisoned in 1962.

Around that time a white South African named Cecil Williams embarked on a journey to Glasgow after being released from his own prison sentence at the hands of the apartheid regime.

Williams was now a political outcast and exiled from his homeland.

During his time in Glasgow he dedicated his time to telling anyone who would listen about the horrors faced by Africans at the hands of the oppressive regime.

"While we were physically denied our freedom, a city 6,000 miles away, and as renowned as Glasgow, refused to accept the legitimacy of the apartheid system"
Nelson Mandela, October 1993.

One man in-particular he spoke fondly of was a resistance leader that was known as the "black pimpernel" due to his ability to evade security services despite being the most wanted man in Africa for 17 months before his eventual capture and subsequent arrest.

The pimpernel was of course a young Nelson Mandela who Williams worked for as a chauffeur while he was on the run, however both men would regularly swap roles to avoid the attention that would have been given to a white man driving a black man during that time.

Williams was with Mandela when he was eventually arrested.

During his visit to Glasgow, Williams became friends with an activist couple named Phil and Cathy Filling.

The couple were instrumental in having Mandela honoured with the freedom of the city in 1981, at a time when, despite the actions of the apartheid era, it was still seen as controversial to honour a man who was widely regarded in western media as a terrorist.

In fact the decision prompted a heated debate on whether it was appropriate for a Scottish local authority to support someone who was then imprisoned over charges of domestic terrorism.

In 1986 they would go one-step further by re-naming St George's place in the city as Nelson Mandela Place.

This was especially significant due to the fact the South African consulate-general was based on the street that was now named after a man imprisoned by his regime.

A visit by the South African ambassador then sparked huge protests outside the City Chambers with catering staff refusing to prepare food for the visit as the anti-apartheid movement in Glasgow continued to grow.

Within a year several other countries followed suit by showing support for Mandela and new Lord Provost Michael Kelly launched a declaration for Mandela's release which went on to gain support from 2,500 mayors from 56 countries around the world.

It was the Fillings son Brian, himself now a prominent anti-apartheid campaigner, who arranged Mandela's visit to Glasgow 30 years after Williams had made the same journey.

Mandela, just released from his 27 year prison sentence, would refuse to fuel any grievances and instead used his platform to promote peace.

On that wet afternoon in George Square he had the crowd captivated by his presence and positive demeanour.

To many in that large crowd he was the ultimate hero for his efforts against apartheid and the way he handled his years of suffering with dignity.

Now, four years after his death at the age of 95, The Nelson Mandela Memorial Foundation have launched an application to have him recognised with a life-size bronze statue in his honour to be erected at Nelson Mandela Place facing on to George Square.

https://stv.tv/news/west-central/1398332-glasgow-to-honour-nelson-mandela-with-city-centre-statue/ | default

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