Mandela in London, 1962

Mandela in London, 1962

Nelson Mandela will be celebrating his 90th birthday on 18 July 2008. To honour this occasion Museum of London remembers his first visit to London in June 1962 in a small photographic display that opens on 20 June 2008. The collection of 17 striking black and white photographs show a youthful Mandela in London – these were some of his last days of freedom.

Mandela studied law at South Africa’s blacks-only university, where he met lifetime friend and political partner Oliver Tambo and joined the African National Congress. In 1960, the ANC was banned and many of its leaders were forced to go underground. Mandela was smuggled out of South Africa in January 1962 and on 7 June flew into London.

Since fleeing South Africa Mandela still had to live surreptitiously and his arrival in London was no exception. He spent 10 days in London and divided his time between dealing with ANC business and visiting old friends. The image of him laughing alongside Oliver Tambo seems particularly poignant with the hindsight of history and the pictures of him looking relaxed with friends capture a rare moment.

Close friends Mary Benson and Freda Levson, two white women involved with the ANC campaign, also lived in London. Benson took Mandela sightseeing and the snapshots of him at iconic London landmarks show a man enjoying some time as a conventional tourist. The Sunday sightseeing tour included the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey; Mandela joked that ‘one day there would be a statue of a black person erected here’.

This was Mandela’s first trip to the capital and it was to be his last for more than 30 years. Mandela returned to South Africa in August and was arrested and later imprisoned for 22 years.

Curator Cathy Ross says: ‘These photos are terrifically evocative: not only a reminder of London’s role in the anti-apartheid struggle during the 1960s, but also of Nelson Mandela’s extraordinary story. Despite being a wanted man, his optimism and warmth really shine through.’

Anti-apartheid activity continued to grow in London with crowds gathering in 1963 to protest against the military nature of the South African state and music concerts were later staged to raise awareness and campaign for Mandela’s release. Mandela returned to London for the first time since his release in 1996, this time as President of South Africa – it had been a long journey.

Mandela in London, 1962 opens on 20 June and runs until 3 August 2008, and is free.

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Venue: Museum of London
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