Today is the 20th anniversary of the freeing of Nelson Mandela. In the group were Pollsmoor Prison to meet Mandela and walk the last yards to fredom was her old friend, confidante, mentor and fellow prisonner Walter Sisulu.
Sisulu was a Freeman of Stoke and the campaign to make him so is outlined in a piece I wrote a few years ago for a writing competition sponsored by the Commonwealth Institute.
I’m in his autobiography and in the index, sandwiched between Fidel Castro and Joseph Chamberlain. I met him in November 1996 and this is an account of my involvement.
Even as a child I knew what was right and wrong. There was a news item about the bombing of a black church in Mississippi in 1963. Two seven year old girls were dead, they were about my age. As I got older I took in the speeches of Martin Luther King and I became aware of South Africa and the apartheid regime. I readily identified with the civil rights movement.
At school I voiced progressive opinions while my classmates were deeply reactionary. I was interested in knowing more about what was going on in South Africa and I wondered whether I became familiar with the name Sisulu and the African National Congress then. In 1970 I gave a talk in my class on the anti apartheid movement the response was hostile.
I was at York University during the troubled late 70s My sympathies were reinforced by students who were at the South African Studies Department.
In the following decade my political involvement increased as I became a Councillor in Stoke. There were so many big brave causes around of which what was happening in South Africa was the most vital. In October 1983 I met a representative from the ANC and it was then I suggested that we try giving the freedom of Stoke to Walter Sisulu. I worked out my tactics on how this could be done.
In 1930 the City Council had given the freedom of the city to General Herzog, one of the architects of the apartheid state. I felt that this was wrong and that we had an opportunity to right this historic injustice. I swayed members of the ruling Labour Party Group and the freedom ceremony took place in November 1984.
Before the freedom of Stoke the local newspaper showed a picture of Sisulu before his imprisonment. He looked a stern individual basilisk eyed with a goatee. The local Tories called him a “Marxist Terrorist”.
The day arrived and was notably for one of the most magnificent speeches I had ever heard, I can still recall the force of the oratory. It was delivered by Seretse Choabi from the ANC who was to die young in 1991. I followed and I am quoted as saying “by honouring Walter Sisulu, the council was putting right a grievous wrong and removing an insult which cruelly and outrageously linked Stoke on Trent with apartheid in South Africa “.
I finally met Sisulu in November 1996. He had been to Stoke a couple of years before and the local University had named a building after him and made him a Chancellor. I was introduced to him. A frail man he was dwarfed by the large civic chair he was sitting in. He gave an impression of serenity and resolve. His hair was snow white which enhanced the sense of kindliness. I came away from this fleeting moment proud that I had played a part in honouring a man who had played a significant part in the liberation of his own country in the greatest moral struggle of the 20th century.
He died in May 2003. His great friend and fellow prisoner on Robbins Island Nelson Mandela issued a statement remarking that part of him had died. I wrote a letter to the local paper to mark the moment.
“He lived to see the dream of a liberated South Africa fulfilled. His was the voice of the voiceless”.