My history hero: Nelson Mandela (1918-2013)

Former footballer Sol Campbell explains why he admires anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela and wife Winnie Mandela upon his release from prison. (Photo by Allan Tannenbaum/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the July 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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Nelson Mandela (1918-2013) was an anti-apartheid activist, revolutionary and president of South Africa from 1994–99. After rising to prominence in the ANC’s 1952 Defiance Campaign – a protest against the country’s apartheid laws – the young lawyer was unsuccessfully prosecuted in the Treason Trial (1956–61). However, in 1964 he was sentenced to life imprisonment for his opposition to the regime. He was to serve 27 years in prison, most notably on Robben Island. On his release, after being elected his country’s first black leader, Mandela’s government focused on tackling the legacy of decades of apartheid.

When did you first hear about Nelson Mandela?

I first heard about this black man who was incarcerated in a prison in South Africa when I was growing up. A lot of people talked about apartheid being wrong and that he should be freed, but in those days some people still labelled him a terrorist – incredible though it may seem today. As a child, I didn’t fully understand the background to his imprisonment, but hearing the story of this black man who’d been caged for so long intrigued me – and the more I learnt about him, the more I admired the man.

What kind of person was he?

He was a strong individual mentally – and physically – and it was that which of course enabled him to survive all those years in prison, be it on Robben Island or the mainland. He was also intelligent, showed real humility (it’s telling how he made his own bed even as president) and possessed enormous patience.

He understood that it sometimes takes times to change things. But just as importantly, he had great courage and was prepared to take on the authorities. In short, he was a class act.

What made Mandela a hero?

For me, it was above all his determination to ‘fight’ for what he believed in. The South African authorities treated him brutally, locking him up for nearly 30 years and in effect throwing away the key. So this is a man who really had to fight for everything. And he had the willpower, stamina and self-belief to keep on fighting for all those years until he achieved his goal of ending apartheid.

But he fought his fight primarily with words – he understood their power – and the sense of moral outrage at his imprisonment finally helped force the racist South African regime into submission. He also had the intelligence to harness power for the greater good and not to abuse it, as so many leaders do when they reach office. Finally, you’ve got to admire his quiet dignity, come what may, and his inspirational leadership.

What was Mandela’s finest hour?

Firstly, the moment he finally walked to freedom after all those years in prison – a moment that will be imprinted on my mind forever. Secondly, his realisation after taking power that he needed to get the entire country behind him, regardless of colour or creed, and the forgiveness he showed to all those who had treated him so shabbily over the years.

Is there anything you don’t particularly admire about him?

I’ve read up on him, and while no one is perfect, I’ve learnt nothing that would change my perception of him as a great man.

Can you see any parallels between his life and your own?

How could I match up to him? It would be impossible! That said, I think I’ve been strong and understanding at the same time, and I’ve never forgotten where I’ve come from. I’d like to think that in my own small way I too have been something of a role model for kids from the wrong side of the tracks, be they black, white or Asian.

If you could meet Mandela, what would you ask him?

I would ask him how the hell he did it. Just how did he get through all those years of imprisonment? For me, doing what he did after three decades in prison is still almost beyond belief.

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Sol Campbell was talking to York Membery. Sol Campbell played for clubs including Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal and Portsmouth during a footballing career spanning two decades. He also won 73 caps for England. Sol Campbell: The Authorised Biography was published by Spellbinding Media in March