I was privileged to meet Mandela, says Sheffield’s David Blunkett

Nelson Mandela pictured during his state visit to Britain
Nelson Mandela pictured during his state visit to Britain
Have your say

On the day of Nelson Mandela’s funeral, Sheffield Brightside MP Davidn Blunkett tells how he was deeply privileged to meet a man of such intergrity.

As we continue to commemorate the life of Nelson Mandela, many memories flood back for me, writes David Blunkett.

David Blunkett

David Blunkett

Sheffield, in so far as any individual or city could assist from outside South Africa in facing down Apartheid and gaining the release of Nelson Mandela and his fellow prisoners, took a real leap.

Richard Caborn, firstly as a Member of the European Parliament and then as MP for Sheffield Central, played a seminal part in the anti-Apartheid movement nationally, as well as encouraging those of us at local level who had some opportunity to use our platform from the City Council to make our voices heard.

I was deeply privileged as a member of Tony Blair’s Cabinet for eight years to meet Nelson Mandela three times. Even more, to be able to have 20 minutes alone with him over a cup of tea and to feel the power of his presence, the wisdom which grew from both struggle and the pain of 27 years imprisoned on Robben Island.

In fact, visiting the prison cell, the little cave used as an escape from the burning sun in the quarry, I was reminded of the interconnectedness of our world. For Gordon Brown, then Prime Minister, phoned me just as I was stepping off the boat onto Robben Island, to try and persuade me of something that I’d taken up vigorously with him. I was reminded that Nelson Mandela’s message was always that democratic politics, dialogue and persuasion, was worth the effort. A complete antidote to cynicism and the sneer, which so often persuades good men and women not to engage in the political process.

But my memories are also personal. For when I was Leader of this great city, we held a significant international convention here in our town hall. In fact, in what was later named the Mandela Room, where delegates gathered from across the globe, and simultaneous translation brought people together whatever their language and background.

The official dinner (yes we could still afford official dinners) was to mark the start of the conference in which Oliver Tambo, the African National Congress representative across the world, was present and would address the conference itself the following day. Just one problem. My then wife Ruth was having our third son in the Jessop Hospital where I myself was born. We had already determined his names. But everyone who realised that I would have to be at the maternity unit and not at the dinner were keen to persuade me that my son should be called Nelson.

Ruth and I had determined the name and although the temptation to reflect our own deep respect and commitment to the life and future freedom of Nelson Mandela was unquestionable, each of us have the right to live our lives and develop our future as individuals. So, Andrew Keir Blunkett emerged into the world on 31st October 1982, providing a very special memory for all our family but one which at this moment in time, reminds me of the importance of linking hands across the world, and as has been said so often over recent days including by President Barack Obama, struggle can so often lead to change.

Let us hope that message remains with us long after the commemoration services are over and Nelson Mandela finds at last a peaceful resting place in the free and democratic South Africa that he played such a seminal part in bringing to fruition.