Home » Current Affairs, What's New » Unforgettable: The Day Nelson Mandela was made a Freeman of The City of Leeds

Nelson Mandela, a titanic figure in the annals of 20th century history, died yesterday in his native South Africa where he is known and revered as Tata, the Father of the Nation.

But the man himself humbly and humorously observed, when being granted ceremonial honours in the third city of England, that “firstly, I am a pensioner… secondly, I am unemployed… and thirdly, I have a criminal record.”

nelson mandela in leeds

Of course, we know better than to take him at his word. That statement taken literally is more drastically further from any semblance of reality than the Iraq Minister of Information’s speeches in 2003, and more understated than the British Army officer who lost his leg and remarked “it stings a bit.”

Nelson Mandela’s life’s work has made him a veritable icon many times over; work both philanthropic and revolutionary in nature; a 95yr long vocation that includes being a key mover and shaker in the early destabilisation of, and resistance to the apartheid of South Africa and  all that followed subsequent; from his revolutionary actions to the resulting twenty-seven years of imprisonment on conviction of conspiracy to overthrow the government, the imprisonment itself – more akin to the heavy labour of the German konzentrationslager or the Russian gulags than the term “prison” implies to western sensibilities – was harsh and soul-sapping, due to the nature of his status as both a racial and political undesirable, and he worked for many years in a lime quarry, sleeping on a straw mat in a tiny cell on Robben Island; to finally, release in the midst of civil strife, a cult leader and the undisputed voice of change, dealing with the incumbent government and ultimately, riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave right into the Presidency of South Africa, the first black man to do so as a democratically elected official.

Mandela’s unconquerable spirit was undimmed by his imprisonment; following twenty-seven hard years of incarceration – to put into context, two more years than the author of this particular piece has even been alive for – he continued being a revolutionary figurehead and leader alike, forcing through the change and ending apartheid in his given land. His philanthropic work, both before and after his presidency has led to countless lives being saved, and the suffering of many alleviated or healed. His Presidency brought about not only major economic and land reform in the country, but entirely in good faith of the brotherhood of man – which sadly, he may have incredibly overestimated, given what he’d seen members of our extended human family do to him and others – Mandela denuclearised South Africa, making it the first of the major “nuclear” nations since the Second World War to do so.

He was a revolutionary, a freedom-fighter, a long-imprisoned hero with an indefatigable spirit; the voice of change, a historic President and “Father” to a nation; a Nobel Peace Prize winner, a man of peace and thought, great in word and deed.

The lengthy theses and endless extolling of this great man’s virtues will continue long into the future, and now, at the time of his death, I’ll allow other writers to cover his entire life’s work with the more detailed and lengthy approach. There are others whose language is less violent, adjectives-strewn, often tactless, and generally profane and colourful; a product of zeitgeist and angst.

Samurai Life will remember Nelson Mandela then, through the day he was ceremonially granted “the keys to the city” – my city – on 30th April 2001, when Mandela became an Honourary Freeman of The City of Leeds. 30th April 2001.

The plaque at Millennium Square - Leeds Civic Hall in the background - which reads "Mandela Garden: This Garden was rededicated by Dr Nelson Rouhlahla Mandela, Honorary Freeman of the City of Leeds, April 30th 2001"

The plaque at Millennium Square – Leeds Civic Hall in the background – which reads “Mandela Garden: This Garden was rededicated by Dr Nelson Rouhlahla Mandela, Honorary Freeman of the City of Leeds, April 30th 2001″

England’s third city, with a million strong population has long since had an affinity with Mandela; opening The Mandela Garden in the former incarnation of its city centre, where it still stands, as part of the new square and rededicated by the man himself. Leeds United’s former captain and club legend Lucas Radebe was the captain of his country, and once even came second on a list of the most popular South African figures; no prize for guessing the incumbent of the top spot!

After his Presidency, Mandela visited the north of England for the first time, and a waiting Leeds was pleased and proud to welcome the iconic South African “Father” and international symbol of peace and progress to the newly constructed “Millennium Square” in its city centre, slap dab betwixt the Leeds Town Hall and the Civic Hall where, we are told, the civic administration from the Lord Mayor down conducts its affairs in running “The Pearl of Yorkshire”. There, the powers that be granted the legendary now-former President but philanthropist, activist and revolutionary of world renown the ceremonial “keys to the city”, as a freeman of Leeds, an honour he shares with, among others, Sir Winston Leonard-Spencer  Churchill.

There were songs, there was a speech from the stage, but it was Mandela’s humble and humorous attitude to the affair that most Leeds folk will fondly remember about the great man.

After, in Lady Mayoress Susan Pitter’s words, a “wonderful” morning in which Mandela made everybody feel “extremely comfortable”, even telling her (the first black Lady Mayoress of Leeds) that he was proud of her, Mandela went on to address the crowd of five thousand people, and later the councillors of the city in a special meeting in which his Freeman status was officially granted, and he spoke thusly.

“Well, why you are making me Freeman of the City I don’t know…

Firstly, I am a pensioner.

Secondly, I am unemployed.

And thirdly, I have a criminal record.”

~Nelson Mandela to the Leeds City Council, 30/4/2001

They say that the brightest lights burn out twice as fast. In the case of Mr Nelson Mandela; 95yrs of revolution, peace activism, philanthropy and charitable deeds, Presidency, international acclaim and, something that resonates for one million people who sound quite funny to most of the rest of you, freeman of the city of Leeds… he certainly proved that axiom to be untrue.

His shining light burned as sharply bright as did anyone’s in the course of modern history, and for longer than most at that.

Rest easy.

@Daniel S Fletcher



The Day Nelson Mandela was made a Freeman of The City of Leeds

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