For those of us who were there on the day, it was an iconic moment. It is something that we will never forget. Indeed, songs have been written about it. It has entered into the folklore of Glasgow. Tour guides show people where it happened. On 9th October 1993, Nelson Mandela came to Glasgow to receive the Freedom of 9 cities and boroughs in the UK. It was pouring with rain. Marah Louw came onto the stage to sing, and Mandela got up and danced with her. It was the day Mandela danced in the Square. It was part of his welcome to Glasgow. It was extraordinary. It will never be forgotten. It was the day that Marah Louw entered into the world’s consciousness. So who is she? That is what this book is about.
This is the life story of a remarkable woman. Growing up black and a woman in apartheid South Africa was a double disadvantage, and it took considerable courage to take on the apartheid state. Marah chose to do this by making a career for herself as a singer, actor and entertainer, and by challenging the laws that attempted to deny her the career path that she had chosen. She also challenged the apartheid state at the very heart of its ideology by marrying and living with a white, Scottish man inside the country.
As if all this was not enough to deal with, there is a mystery surrounding her birth, which her family are very unwilling to deal with. This is a theme that haunts the book from the opening to the closing pages. Marah puts this down to her family abiding by African custom, which is true but it is not just an African custom. I can assure her of this. My mother had the same experience and we are a Welsh family. The common factor, I think, is the Methodist tradition, but I have no evidence for that.
There is much in this book that is a revelation, even to those of us who are well versed in the horror of apartheid. It is the telling details about the petty spite that hit home the most. There is one story about how it was assumed that Marah had to be the maid because she was black and she answered her own door. By that stage, the Group Areas Act had been abolished and she was living with Bill in a comfortable area. Marah opens the door and is asked to fetch “the madam”. When the visitor found out that the “madam” was black, she ran away. And then there are the insults – calling her a “kaffir”. [It has always struck me that “Kaffir” is an Arabic word, and was probably introduced to South Africa by Moslem slaves from what is now Indonesia. It is certainly not a Dutch word. This is perhaps one of the ironies of history].
As this book reveals, Marah has not had the easiest of lives. Her personal life has been fraught with difficulties and tragedies, as well as with joy and hope and success. The point is that she has overcome it all. She has survived divorce, betrayal, shipwreck (literally) and she has had her triumphs. She was a friend of the great singer Miriam Makeba. She has performed on stages across the world. She has sung at Presidential inaugurations, and she has danced with Nelson Mandela.
This book is a celebration of life. It tells how she has sweetened the waters of our lives. It tells the wonderful story of the woman who took Glasgow by storm the day that Mandela danced in the square.