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Black History Month – those that have influenced us – Nelson Mandela

Date posted: 9 October 2020

During Black History Month our lawyers will be reflecting on cases, the black lawyers and activists who have most influenced them in their legal careers. First up our managing partner, Matthew Davies.

For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” — Nelson Mandela

It may be a bit of a cliché to say that Nelson Mandela is the black lawyer who has most influenced me.

I went to Manchester University in the 1980s. I didn’t study law – I studied history and sociology. I was more interested in demonstrations and picket lines during the 1984 miners’ strike than I was in going to the library.

I had a non-political upbringing. I lived in Nigeria when young. I had relatives living in South Africa. The political consensus at the time seemed to be that it was OK for black people to be treated as second class citizens – it was in their best interests to be ruled by white people who just knew better. Nelson Mandela was a terrorist and deserved to be locked up.

At Manchester I had a political awakening. There was an active anti–apartheid movement and I went to smoke filled meetings of the Labour Club to hear from ANC activists and visiting South African trade unionists. The racism in South Africa was appalling and it was systemic and it needed to be overthrown. We went on million strong marches. We boycotted Barclays. We did not drink South African wine. And we learned about Nelson Mandela.

He was in prison. He was the symbol for the movement. And he was… a lawyer. Until then I had thought of law as a dull thing that people who liked contracts did. Nelson Mandela was a different kind of lawyer. He saw the law as a vehicle to change society, alongside the political struggle.

And I remember the day that he was eventually released from prison after 27 years of being locked away. I was at my parents’ home. We were watching it live on TV. And I saw a man of such dignity come out of prison.
And that dignity continued as he negotiated to end apartheid. He showed a considerable capacity to forgive but had a steely determination that he would bring about the end of apartheid however long it took. And he and the movement behind him did just that. He became president of the new South Africa in 1994.

And the 1980s were not just about campaigning against apartheid. I was a young gay man in a British society riddled with homophobia and discriminatory laws. And South Africa was no better in that regard. No one expected Nelson Mandela to become a champion of lesbian and gay South Africans. His was an anti-racist movement. But he quietly, in his own determined way, made clear that all South Africans were worthy of dignity. Whether black or white, gay or straight. And within a short period the new South African Constitutional Court had given some of the most powerful judgements in favor of lesbians and gay men anywhere on the planet. It was Nelson Mandela who rooted the concept of dignity for all so deeply into the new South Africa.

When I left Manchester University I got a job in the Peckham Job Centre helping the long term unemployed into what little work there was at the time. I knew Nelson Mandela had been a lawyer before he became a political activist. Maybe that’s what I should do I thought. So after a year I was off to law school, became a solicitor, and ended up doing immigration law and campaigning for gay rights.

I am older and hopefully a little wiser now. I’m not a hot headed young radical but know injustice when I see it. I like to think that if Nelson Mandela was around today he might just be one of those do gooder, leftie activist lawyers we hear about. Perhaps helping asylum seekers access their rights. Perhaps stopping an unlawful removal. Believing in justice for all. Thank you Nelson for the inspiration.