Bust of Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela
Gaoled 5 August 1962
Sentenced to life imprisonment
12 June 1964 for his actions
against apartheid
Erected by the Greater London Council
Unveiled by Oliver Tambo
President of the African National Congress
12 October 1985
Nelson Mandela was released
after 27 years imprisonment
11th February 1990
Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize
10th December 1993
Inaugurated President of the
republic of South Africa and
its Government of National Unity
10th May 1994

As usual this morning, Friday 6 December 2013, I turned on the radio when I awoke. The BBC’s Today programme was in the middle of a piece about Nelson Mandela. Immediately I knew he must have passed away, and this was confirmed after what seemed like ages but probably only a minute – if that.

Just a month ago I passed the bust of Mandela by Neil Walters, on the walkway between the Hungerford Bridge and the Royal Festival Hall. I have passed by this statue walking from Waterloo Station into the city many times: whenever I went to London while living in Southampton, and each morning when I briefly worked in London during 2008. Climbing the stairs this most recent time, I was struck at how splendid it looked in the November morning light. So much so that I caused some annoyance as I interrupted the smooth flow of the morning commuters to take the photograph above.

Nelson Mandela was awarded an honorary degree by the University of the Witwatersrand (6 September 1991) while I was the Deputy Director of the Rock Art Research Unit. And taking part in the ceremony was one of the highlights of my time there.

During his acceptance speech Mandela typically gracious in his praise for the University and its stand against the South African government and apartheid. Specifically, he singled out two groups of people. Not surprisingly, the first were the political activists, of which the University counted in its ranks many distinguished campaigners over decades of the struggle against apartheid.

The second group of people Mandela praised were the University’s archaeologists. Many of whom had over decades produced significant research on southern Africa’s past that demonstrated the blatant inaccuracies of the myths on which apartheid was founded. This not ten years after certain international archaeology bodies refused to allow some of the very same archaeologists to attend conferences abroad. While it is true certain South African archaeologists did produce constructions of southern Africa’s past that not only supported the apartheid regime but justified it too, there were however many archaeologists who challenged the archaeological justification for white supremacy in South Africa.

As a member of the University’s academic staff I was invited to take part in the academic procession at that ceremony. Usually, only a handful of staff members turn out for graduation ceremonies. Not this one. Many of the University’s staff wanted to be a part of this ceremony. Because of the numbers, the senior staff got to be on the specially erected stage, whereas the more junior members of staff were in the front rows of the makeshift auditorium. And because of the logistics of the event, too difficult to explain, when Mandela left the stage he filed passed the junior staff … and he stopped to shake hands with each of us – thanking each person for coming. I wanted to say something to him about his reference to the University’s archaeologists – but I have to admit to being too starstruck.

I feel privileged to have been at the ceremony, and to hear Nelson Mandela acknowledge the work of archaeologists in person. And proud to be able to say I have shaken the hands of one of the best Statesmen this World has had.

RIP Madiba