18th July, which is Nelson Mandela International Day, has become special in Glasgow. His birthday was designated by the United Nations in 2009 as a day to celebrate his dedication to public service, giving 67 years of his life to that cause. The United Nations asked people to dedicate 67 minutes of the day to volunteering in their communities, as a tribute to the man.
Nelson Mandela International Day is special in Glasgow because of the long connection that the city has had with the man. In 1981, Glasgow was the first city in the world to make Nelson Mandela a Freeman of the City. And this was when he was still in prison. The Lord Provost of Glasgow organised a petition of 5,000 mayors throughout the world to the United Nations calling for the release of Mandela. Glasgow renamed the street in which the apartheid consulate was based Nelson Mandela Place. The consulate refused to use the name and eventually had to close – the only apartheid diplomatic building in the whole world to do so. In 1988, the Nelson Mandela Freedom March set off from Glasgow to London. And, of course, in 1993 Mandela came to Glasgow to receive the Freedoms of nine cities and boroughs in the UK. George Square was crammed with people, and when Marah Louw sang, Nelson Mandela got up and danced with her, in a magical moment that no-one who was there will ever forget.
As in every year since its inauguration, people in Glasgow rose magnificently to the task of doing something special on Nelson Mandela International Day. ACTSA scotland decided that they would send a container of 50,000 children’s books from City Chambers, George Square, Glasgow on the day. This, of course, meant that the books had to be donated, collected, sorted and packed before they could be loaded onto the container. Collection points were set up in the Mitchell Library, and 5 other libraries in Glasgow. The STUC acted as a collection point. Episcopal Churches (that is, the Anglican Communion) in the Diocese of Glasgow and Galloway collected books, and got them to one of the collection points. By the time that the day came, volunteers had packed the books into thousands of boxes, ready to be loaded onto the container. The basement of Hillhead Library was the storage point.
At 10.00am on 18th July, the volunteers assembled in the car park of Hillhead Library. Some of us went down to the basement and started loading the boxes onto trolleys to be taken to the bottom of the stairs. From there, a human chain moved the books, like pass the parcel, up the stairs, across the car park and onto the container. John Nelson, our organiser, was interviewed by STV. The basement was emptied, the container filled and it set off for George Square for the official send off.
In George Square, Obed Mlaba, the South African High Commissioner sent the container on its way to the Eastern Cape Province in South Africa. We then went into City Chambers to hear speeches from Glasgow City Council, the STUC, the High Commissioner and South Africa’s Honorary Consul in Scotland. The music was supplied by Charlie and the Batchelors Jazz Band. Magnus Walker, a young Glaswegian baritone, ended the event by singing the South African National Anthem.
2018 will be the centenary of Mandela’s birth. Perhaps we should all start thinking about how we are going to celebrate.