How Glasgow came to love the man they called ‘Madiba’

It rained the day Nelson Mandela danced on the streets of Glasgow.

The paving slabs of the city’s George Square were damp under the feet of the crowd that had flocked to meet him, but as a report in the Herald later noted: “He did not smile: he positively beamed. His eyes, no longer haunted by his years in prison, sparkled with mischief and humour.”

For many, Nelson Mandela was a bright symbol of hope for people fighting against injustice not just in South Africa but across the globe.

Over his lifetime, he would become an icon of peace – a father to a nation who knew him fondly as ‘Madiba’ – the man on the front page of the papers dressed in those cheerfully bright shirts he loved, with his soft pepper-grey hair and gentle smile.

He was also the man that old mother Glasgow would take into her generous, stubborn heart.

As Billy Connolly himself reminded the world at the Commonwealth Games last year, while other countries stepped warily around the man branded as a terrorist for fighting against segregation, Glasgow shouldered right on in and became the first in the world to award him the Freedom of the City.

As Glasgow Caledonian University archivist Carole McCallum told STV in 2013: “Glasgow has always fought for the poorer person. It’s a working person’s city.

“If you look at the legacy of Glasgow, if you think of Upper Clyde Shipbuilders, Jimmy Reid and fighting all that – the people of Glasgow always fought for the underdog.”

The people of Glasgow undertook a relentless opposition campaign to apartheid in South Africa, calling for Nelson Mandela’s freedom from his stark island prison cell and encouraging the boycott of South African goods.

The campaign to free Mandela from his life sentence led to the Freedom at 70 March to London, which kicked off in Glasgow with performances by Simple Minds on 16 June 1987, and a year prior to the historic march, campaigners also successfully had St George’s Place – home of the South African consulate – renamed to honour Nelson Mandela after constant picketing.

It was a tribute that Mandela himself would return to pay in person.

Twenty-five years ago today, anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela was freed from prison after more than 27 years behind bars.

Just three years later, he stood at the city’s George Square, within sight of Nelson Mandela Place which they had renamed in his honour, to thank the crowds gathered to meet him.

Under grey skies he danced to the thrumming beat of Sowetan music and paid his thanks to a city who had fought for both his freedom and his belief in equality at a time when his own leaders had fought to silence him.

“People of Glasgow, I am now free to be with you,” he said.

“I am free and I am here today to thank you. But I am still denied the most fundamental of freedoms in my own country – the right to vote. But I bring a message of hope. We have made great progress towards our goal of one person, one vote.”

In the years that would follow, Nelson Mandela would be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and be inaugurated as the first black president of South Africa.

His inspirational talks on forgiveness and equality would spread a message of hope for a fair and just world across the nations.

On December 5, 2013, Nelson Mandela died peacefully at his home aged 95.

His coffin, draped in the colours of a finally united Rainbow Nation, was laid to rest in his ancestral home in Qunu.

In Glasgow, people gathered on Nelson Mandela Place to lay flowers and tributes, their thoughts resting on the man whose freedom they had fought for and who had once come to them to dance before them in the rain in gratitude.

Their written tributes echoed that of Nelson Mandela’s own family spokesman, Chief Ngangomhlaba Matanzima: “A great tree has fallen, he is now going home to rest with his forefathers. We thank them for lending us such an icon.”

A version of this story was published on STV online on February 11, 2015

Read: Nelson Mandela: The father to a nation and inspiration to the world


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