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OP-ED: Memories of my mother, Mandela, and Archbishop Huddleston

  • Published at 03:43 am July 9th, 2021
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Lessons about standing against apartheid

Nelson Mandela’s birth anniversary falls later this month, and a few days ago when I began to think about him, memories of my mother came flooding back to me. 

In the early 1960s, I was with my mother who was buying fruit and vegetables near our home in southwest London. The shop-keeper said: “We have very nice apples,” and my mother asked where the apples had come from, and the shop-keeper said that they were from South Africa. 

“I am not buying anything from South Africa,” my mother said very strongly. When we had returned home, she explained details about apartheid and racism and told me about the harassment and repeated arrests of Nelson Mandela and his colleagues, and she also explained how she received a lot of anti-apartheid information from someone she admired very much, Father Trevor Huddleston. 

Over time, my mother told me about Father Huddleston, who was the same age as her, and her memory of him during their university days in the 1930s. “He was a very good dancer,” she said with a smile. As a priest in South Africa from the 1940s to the 1950s, Father Huddleston fought hard and long against the apartheid laws. He was given the nickname of Makhalipile (“dauntless one”) and in 1955 the African National Congress honoured him for the work he had been doing. 

In the same year, his England-based religious community, fearing he might be arrested, withdrew him from South Africa and in 1956 he was banned by the South African government from returning to South Africa. 

Later as Bishop Huddleston he was able to return to Africa in 1960. After Nelson Mandela was given a life sentence in 1962 for conspiring to overthrow the government, he jointly founded the Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM) with Julius Nyerere who later became president of Tanzania. 

Later on, and by that time Archbishop of the Province of the Indian Ocean, he continued, from London, to fight against apartheid and racism. In 1984, he led an AAM delegation to meet Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, which prompted her to more actively support the cause against apartheid. 

In 1988, he was involved in organizing a big “Nelson Mandela Freedom at 70” campaign, which included many rallies and demonstrations, a concert at Wembley Stadium in London, and a big birthday rally in Hyde Park attended by 200,000 people, which was addresses by both Desmond Tutu and Trevor Huddleston. Later on, after Archbishop Huddleston’s death, Archbishop Desmond Tutu is reported as saying: “Trevor Huddleston made sure that apartheid got onto the world agenda and stayed there.”

Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990, and in 1993, Archbishop Huddleston’s prohibition was lifted in South Africa and he even proudly cast his vote in South Africa’s first democratic election in 1994. He had always said that he hoped that apartheid would die before he died, and he was relieved that it did. 

Before Archbishop Huddleston died in 1998, I was most fortunate to meet him in London, and we had a fascinating discussion about his life, apartheid, and Nelson Mandela. 

He also said that he was sorry that my mother had not lived to see the end of apartheid. He was fascinated to hear about the way my life had been influenced by my work with untouchable castes, and Gandhian ashrams in Bihar in India. He also spoke so strongly and fondly of Nelson Mandela and Mandela’s inspirational leadership. 

I never met Nelson Mandela, but it was so good to have these different connections over the years beginning with my mother.

Julian Francis has been associated with relief and development activities of Bangladesh since the War of Liberation. In 2012, the Government of Bangladesh awarded him the ‘Friends of Liberation War Honour’ in recognition of his work among the refugees in India in 1971 and in 2018 honoured him with full Bangladesh citizenship. Julian has also been honoured with the award of the OBE for services to development in Bangladesh.

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