Written by Billie Gianfrancesco • Published 06th December 2013
I wasn’t upset when I heard about Nelson Mandela’s death. It had been coming for a long time and 95 is a pretty decent innings. As I watched the news coverage around the world I felt overwhelmed and immensely proud that so many people of different ages, ethnicities and cultures came together to celebrate his life and achievements.
I am only 24, but Madiba had a profound effect on my life. I was a baby in Australia when he visited in 1990 after his release from prison. My babysitter had let Mum down so she took me along to the press conference to hear him speak. I wouldn’t stop crying so she took me outside – where we bumped into the man himself!
He said that he hadn’t heard a baby cry in over 20 years, and asked if he could hold me. He did, and he noticed that I was mixed race. He told my mother that I was ‘the future of the world’, a symbol of love between the races he fought so long to unite.
As I got older I really struggled to figure out my place in society. As a child in Australia, I felt very conscious of my appearance – people would comment quite openly that I looked different. Things didn’t get a whole lot better in Norfolk, where I spent the other half of my childhood. Kids can be cruel and at school, they would be openly racist, but it was the adults’ reaction that really made me angry. Some would stare at me in the street or tell me to ‘go back to where I came from’.
It was around this time that my parents started buying me books about Nelson Mandela, and he became my hero. After learning his story I no longer felt angry or bitter at the people who would taunt, stare and make comments; I pitied them. Mandela taught me that these people were ignorant and he helped me to hold my head high and be proud of who I am.
As a young, mixed-race person in a predominantly white society, I would have been lost without his influence. When I moved to East London I was excited to be part of such a vibrant ethnic community, but alas, I still didn’t fit in. Black hairdressers refuse to do my hair or charge me extra because ‘I am white’ – I wonder what Mandela would have said to that?
Madiba made a profound impact on the world, but I still think there is a long way to go in delivering his message and bringing about positive change in the way people perceive race and ethnicity. The way Eastern Europeans such as Romanians and Bulgarians have recently been portrayed in the UK’s media is testament to the fact that racism is still prevalent and widely accepted in our society. Our parliament and police force are not representative of the glorious ethnic rainbow that the UK is celebrated for.
The best way to send off our beloved Mandela is to carry on his message by continuing to fight for tolerance and acceptance amongst all cultures, countries and ethnicities.