Looking At Edinburgh

30 October 2008

Mandela Square that never was

the statue of mother and child

In 1986, the UN Security Council recommended to the member states of the United Nations that they “prohibit the export to South Africa of items which they have reason to believe are destined for the military and/or police forces of South Africa”.

Back then, Nelson Mandela was in jail – he had then been in prison for 23 years. Edinburgh City Council was planning a new square in Lothian Road, and a faction on the Council had resolved to call it Mandela Square, in his honour. (They lost the vote – the new square, which faces the Usher Hall, was named Festival Square, after Edinburgh’s International Festival – which was then to celebrate its 40th anniversary next year, 1947-1987.)

Ann Davidson won the competition run by the Council, and her statue “Woman and Child” was made to represent and to honour all those killed or imprisoned for their stand against apartheid. The woman and her child stand in front of a sketch in bronze of a shanty. The statue was unveiled on 22nd July 1986 by Suganya Chetty, a member of the African National Congress then living in exile in Edinburgh.

For those who don’t remember, Mandela was released on 11th February 1990, nearly 27 years after he was sentenced to life imprisonment on 12th June 1964, and on 26th April 1994, the first free elections were held in South Africa: Nelson Mandela became President of the country that had imprisoned him for fighting against apartheid. It still feels like current events to me – but I suppose to many people reading this blog, it’s… history.

The message at the base of the statue, “Victory is Certain”, came true.

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There are statues in bronze and stone all over Edinburgh, as there are in most of the capital cities of the world, mostly memorialising for eternity a record of wars and battles that would have been long forgotten if not for these monuments. Which is their purpose, in a way. (As you go down the steps into Waverley Station from the bridge, there is the big bronze plaque that lists the name of every railwayman from Edinburgh who went to war in WWI and WWII and never came home, to remind the future generations that war is the business of killing people, that we need to remember the dead as well as the victory.)

But this statue is unique in two ways:

First, because this statue was made to memorialise a victory that had not yet occurred: a message of hope for the future, not a past celebration.

Second, because this statue – though I never knew it until this year’s Black History Month (in the UK, every October since 1998) – is the first publicly-funded statue in the UK to depict a black woman.

In the 1987 General Election, Diane Abbott became the first black woman Member of Parliament.

This photo is available on Redbubble: Festival Square: Mother and Child.

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