As a child of the Eighties – I was at both secondary school and uni during that decade – Nelson Mandela was part of my psyche; I bought Free Nelson Mandela by the Special AKA, I went on marches campaigning for his release and for the end of apartheid (and I’ve never banked with Barclays as a result), wrote letters and signed petitions; not much, from so very far away, but something. The Long Walk to Freedom was a seminal moment for all of us who had hoped that one day he would be released.
Fast forward a few years to 1996 and I was working on the magazine of a Sunday newspaper. One evening my boss said to me, ‘Liz, can you go to a concert at the Royal Albert Hall for us? Something to do with Nelson Mandela.’
Of course I leapt at the chance. A couple of hours later I found myself sitting in fantastic seats in the Royal Albert Hall next to two reporters who would later become national newspaper editors, looking directly at Prince Charles, the Queen, and President Mandela. I can remember my eyes filling with tears as soon as I saw him, so happy and smiling, and trying to hide them from the two hardened hacks next to me.
Anyone who was there that night will tell you it was the most spectacular concert. Tony Bennett, the American singer, sang a cappella, his beautiful voice ringing out throughout the Albert Hall; Quincy Jones, Phil Collins and Benjamin Zephaniah performed. But the real highlight was when South African group Ladysmith Black Mambazo came on. They encouraged everyone in the audience to get up and dance. President Mandela got up, as did his daughter and everyone around them; he persuaded Prince Charles to stand up, and he also started dancing. And then, the most extraordinary thing happened. The Queen also stood up. She didn’t dance, exactly, but she did appear to be jigging a little. It may have been a trick of the light, but I like to think that no one could resist the charisma of Nelson Mandela. He was, quite simply, a legend.