I never set eyes on the Madiba, which together with shaking to the samba rhythms of the Rio Carnival, remained the two must-do unfulfilled acts on my ‘bucket list’. Alas, the first has been crossed off and the second may have to be combined with what may turn out to be a briefer than hoped-for sojourn to the 2014 FIFA World Cup.
True, I never met Nelson Mandela, but his life and times were to shape and influence my own for more than five of my six decades of life. Basil Davidson gave us a decent grounding on Africa, apartheid and Nelson Mandela’s incarceration on Robben Island.
However, my first real encounter came with the disastrous dialogue with the Progress Party Government of Dr Kofi Abrefa Busia’s policy on South Africa. I found myself going to my uncle, Victor Owusu, to congratulate him on his stiff opposition to it, which led to his being shifted from the foreign ministry back to the Attorney-General’s Department.
Next stop, Leeds; a cold, miserable, damp, acid-rain infested and sooty industrial town in northern England, whose only appeal to me then was that it was the home of Don Revie’s Leeds United. Later, I was to learn that the Marks & Spencer Stores started there and Geoffrey Boycott (mark this name) had set up shop to bat forever for the Yorkshire Country Cricket Club.
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On an unusually sunny morning in October 1971, I set out to open my first bank account in Leeds. The four contenders were NAT WEST, LLOYDS, MIDLAND and BARCLAYS. As an African, this was really no conquest. I had a Barclays Bank account in Ghana so it was no brainier as to which of the four banks to go for. Indeed this was the same with the hundreds of Africans who had journeyed to Leeds to better themselves
A massive barricade of long-haired hippy white students met us at the entrance to Barclays and sought to persuade us not to go in because there was a massive campaign against Barclays for its gargantuan dealings with apartheid South Africa. BOYCOTT BARCLAYS was the aim; and since apartheid was an attack on Africa, we should show solidarity and not open our accounts and for once, manifest the cliché “familiarity breeds contempt.”
I duly turned away and opened my account with Midland (now HSBC) and returned to join the picket and the start of my active campaign with the Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM), with Peter Hain as the talismanic lead, and MP Hughes (now Lord) as its President. The annual Hyde Park marches and rallies in front of the South African High Commission at Trafalgar Square became a major feature of my politics.
The boycott campaigns spread from specific companies to disinvestment in all and every company with links to apartheid South Africa. Our own university was targeted to disinvest. As President of the Leeds University Union, I had the privilege of moving the disinvestment motion at the university senate. The motion was seconded by Prof. Ralph Millerand, perhaps the foremost radical socialist thinker of his generation and head of the Political Science Department. Now Ralph’s son, Ed, is on the crest of becoming Britain’s next Prime Minister in 2015.
The University of Leeds, under the very progressive leadership of Lord Boyle of Handsworth, Vice–Chancellor and former Minister of Education under Macmillan, became one of the first universities to disinvest its shares in companies with large South African interests. Boyle and the LUU also collaborated to set up a Southern African Scholarship Scheme under which the university offered free tuition to prospective students from a post–liberation South Africa and Zimbabwe. The university waived tuition and the LUU had to raise funds for the boarding and living expenses.
In the run-up to all of the above, our university had stopped a Nobel Prize winner, William Shockley, from being awarded an honorary degree because of his obnoxious views on race and its implicit justification of apartheid. We also were the first to host Donald Woods, friend and torchbearer for Steve Biko, who was literally thrown out of a window in 1976; an event which sparked the Soweto riots.
Disinvestment was quickly followed by boycott of South African goods from UK shops and across Europe, This was to augment sporting boycotts which all combined to force F.W. de Klerk’s bold and courageous act of enlightened self-interest that led to Mandela’s release from gaol in 1990 and his assumption as the President of Black Africa’s last colony to achieve independence in 1994.
Mandela, as President, was to demonstrate the capacity for big, honest, all-inclusive leadership that has the whole world, for once, competing for who can eulogise and celebrate his passing the most. He donned the Springboks rugby jersey and acted as cheer-leader-in-chief to demonstrate that independent South Africa was no longer divided along racial lines. He was there to lift the World Cup and even became the Godfather of two of the children of the winning captain.
Mandela’s friendship with his jailer-in-chief from Robben Island deepened and became more public. He set up a Truth & Reconciliation Commission to learn and never forget the lessons of apartheid rather than seek revenge on the past oppressors. He appointed a white man to lead the reconstruction and resurgence of the economy of South Africa.
Mandela’s every act as President of post-apartheid South Africa was to demonstrate that the strength and economic prosperity of a nation was founded on a unity of purpose and action in pursuit of the common challenges that lay ahead. The past was important, but must not and cannot be allowed to enslave or tie the future into Gregorian knots that smother instead of unleashing the energies of progress and improvement in the well-being of all.
Today, South Africa, Black Africa’s last country to become independent, is the first and leading economic giant in Africa and a member of BRICs the most powerful economic giant of the Southern hemisphere.
The goods that we all set out to keep off the shelves of the supermarkets of the world are now much sought-after household names in Ghana, Africa and the rest of the world. In the same way as we call all hot beverages tea, the name Ceres has become synonymous with all tetra-packed fruit juices.
The cynic in me suggests that If White South Africa could foretell the fortunes that lay ahead from meeting the tastes and extravagances of Black Africa’s elite and ruling classes, they would have abandoned apartheid at least 20 years before they did. Now they have seen the light, every single company in the West, East, India, China and Russia, looking for a foothold in Africa, has made South Africa, not Ghana, as its gateway to Africa. The last has indeed become the first.
As I mourn the Madiba with a fulsome glass of Nederburg ‘cardio’, I want us the citizens of Black Africa’s first independent nation to reflect on and learn to move away from UGCC-CPP- UP; NDC-NPP; Ewe-Akan-Zongos; Christian-Muslim; Educated-Illiterate; and all the useless and energy-sapping divides that destroy instead of unite us.
It is very painful that we, the first, have become increasingly dependent on the last. But there is no need to be morose and weep for ourselves. Rather, we should focus on using the Mandela Legacy of bringing diverse people to believe in a common goal to build a united and prosperous Ghana.
This is how Ghana can finally give full meaning to our pride and accomplishment as the first by emulating the deeds of the first leader of the last.
“Ghana First, Politics and Tribe in recess” has become my mantra in the twilight years of my national service. Cheers, Madiba for pointing the way. As the Man said; I shall continue to taste the fruits and nectars of thy land in memory of you.
Chief Policy Analyst, Ghana Institute for Public Policy Options, GIPPO