The Day The Glasgow Polis Saluted Mandela

Our first memory comes from the late John Stevenson, penned on 5 March 2022, just before he died, and adapted from an original piece written for a UNISON publication.

Sent in by his wife, Morag, she tells us that he submitted it to the Edinburgh Book Festival (they had invited submissions to be published on their website in the lead up to the Book Festival) and that when they published it, John was over the moon.

John was a trustee and huge supporter of the Nelson Mandela Scottish Memorial Foundation. He was their communications guru up until his death and the creator and original web manager of this site. We publish it in his memory.

“It was 9 October 1993, Glasgow, torrential rain. Thousands welcomed Nelson Mandela to George Square. A chance meeting with Lothian Region convener Keith Geddes and UNISON/NALGO general secretary Alan Jinkinson led to me being in the line-up to meet Mandela. I was in a red nylon hoodie and soaked to the skin.

I’ll never forget Mandela’s moving words, full of political significance, as he shook my hand. “You are very wet”, he said. He was easy with people. He was tired. But he so wanted to say thank you to the movement that had supported a cause which, as many will have forgotten, at times was not that popular.

I kept the Mandela handshake hand in my pocket (leading to a failure to catch my camera when a colleague knocked it over). I kept it there all the way home until I laid it on my young children’s foreheads in their cot. Daft I know but I’m still glad I did it and so are they. One has texted me tonight to more or less say so.

As Mandela left the stage that day, I went round the back to take a photo and met a woman from Namibia. As we watched him come down the scaffolding stairs to the empty space between the back of the stage and the front of the city chambers, the South African national anthem struck up behind him.

It was pouring down but Mandela stopped and stood to attention halfway down the stairs, with nobody to see him, getting drenched as the assistant with the brolly had been left a couple of steps behind.

A statement from Madiba that he was now responsible for a nation as well as a movement.

I looked to the right. The only other people watching this were the woman from Namibia, me and, in front of the city chambers, a line of Glasgow polis standing to attention and saluting the man. Such a powerful vision that it still moves me to relate it to this day.

It says it all when it comes to the effect he had. From ‘terrorist’ to man saluted by Glasgow polis. How we had moved on. Sadly, how much we still have to move on.

John Stevenson
5th March 2022


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