Nelson Mandela: the world mourns his passing, and celebrates the life of a person who somehow made the world a bit better place.

Mandela visit in 2001, Rededication of Mandela Gardens

Leeds has a place in the Mandela story, and one to be proud of. The visit of Nelson Mandela to Leeds in 2001, the award of the Freedom of the City, the re-dedication of Mandela Garden, the crowds in Millenium Square; Mandela on stage in Millenium square being hugged by the children – that was a day of happiness and celebration.

Original Mandela Gardens opening – 1983
But it was far from the beginning of Leeds’ celebration of Mandela and all he stood for. Leeds Labour Council backed the call for sanctions against the apartheid regime, and despite considerable protests in the right wing press, named the original Mandela gardens and dedicated them to the long struggle for equality. They were opened in December 1983.

The continuing struggle
The T-shirt is a memento of those darker days, during the struggles of the Anti-apartheid movement in the 1980’s.. For reasons which will be debated through history, Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government and the republican administration in the U.S.A. refused to back other countries’ call for economic sanctions.

The now very faded T-shirt
The now very faded T-shirt

At the University of Leeds I worked alongside a refugee, Peter, (not his real name), from the apartheid regime, whose family originally migrated to Cape Province from Southern India. He continued campaign for the anti-apartheid movement in Leeds.

T-shirt ban
The anti-apartheid movement was campaigning for Mandela’s release in time for his 70th birthday in 1988. A strong believer in racial equality, I readily bought 4 T-shirts, one for each of the family. As a lab. technician, my working clothes were usually T-shirt and jeans, under a lab coat, and I had a wide selection of colourful holiday souvenir and fashionably questionable slogan T-shirts.

No sanctions, but boycotts of S African goods played their part.
No sanctions, but boycotts of S African goods played their part.
However, this particular T-shirt incurred the wrath of the Departmental Superintendent, a Tory grandee of the former County Council. I was told in no uncertain terms that such a T-shirt was not suitable work wear. Students and academics, could of course, wear what they liked, but mere technicians could be dictated to, and my trade Union rep. wasn’t much help at that time.
I continued to wear the T-shirt, in turn with all my others, and avoided the Superintendent. My husband wore his, while running, and at work, without adverse comment, but he worked amongst people who supported racial equality in South Africa.
The Superintendent died soon afterwards, and no-one else objected to my T-shirt.

Time of change
Then, in 1990, Nelson Mandela was released, and all the changes which brought about the modern “Rainbow Nation” happened through the hard work of many, not least the strong leadership in forgiveness and reconciliation from Nelson Mandela.

Changing attitudes
Peter did not have a totally happy time in Leeds. 25 years on, I believe that some of the petty episodes of racial harassment that Peter suffered, in the workplace and in the community, from the police and officialdom just wouldn’t occur now. We have become a more tolerant Society, though still with a long way to go.
I last heard that Peter and his family had returned to the new South Africa. I hope despite all the problems the new democracy faces, he found a happy and fulfilling life there.

All of us will now have to make do with the memories, and Nelson Mandela’s past words and actions to inspire us to continue working against prejudice and discrimination of any kind.

I was privileged to be in Leeds Council Chamber as a local Councillor to see Nelson Mandela receive the Freedom of the City, and to witness the welcome in Millenium Square.
And, yes, I did wear the T-shirt that day – under my formal suit.

Doreen Illingworth
Headingley Councillor 1998-2002

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One thought on “The Tale of an – anti-apartheid – T-shirt, told by an Adel and Wharfedale member

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