Meeting Mandela and the fight against apartheid

Ben McPartland
Ben McPartland - [email protected]
Meeting Mandela and the fight against apartheid
Derens meets Mandela in Villejuif in 1993. Photo: Jacqueline Derens

France joined the rest of the world in mourning the passing of Nelson Mandela on Thursday. Here Jacqueline Derens, one of the leaders of the French anti-apartheid campaign, tells us about the day she met Madiba and her battle against France's powerful pro-apartheid lobby.


In October 1993, Jacqueline Derens finally got to meet the man whom she and thousands of other anti-apartheid activists in France and across the globe had campaigned for years to be released from prison after being locked up for nearly three decades.

Nelson Mandela, 95, who died on Thursday after undergoing months of treatment for a lung infection, was on his second visit to Paris since being released from a South African jail where he had been kept as a political prisoner for 27 years for opposing the racist apartheid rulers of South Africa.

During his visit to Paris, Mandela agreed to take time out from his official list of functions to visit a school in Villejuif, a town outside Paris where hundreds of kids, teachers and parents were waiting to greet him.

Also there on that day was Jacqueline Derens, the former president of the group 'Rencontre Nationale contre l’Apartheid', (National Gathering against Apartheid), which had been set up in 1986 to fight against apartheid in South Africa.

“When you looked at Mandela you knew you were looking at a great man. He was such an impressive person, but also very easy-going,” said Derens.

“He just wanted to shake everyone’s hands, his bodyguards didn’t know what to do. Mandela was beaming and was so happy just to be with people. And they were all thrilled to see him.

“There were little kids there to greet him and I remember him picking up a little girl and giving her a kiss.

“He had an enormous grace and presence but he made everyone feel at ease with him.”

Although the main struggle for liberation from apartheid was fought in South Africa, international pressure from leading nations around the world played a vital role in toppling the white-supremacist regime.

The governments of those nations were themselves put under pressure by anti-apartheid movements in their own countries, who refused to accept the existence of a racist regime that gave all the spoils to the whites and left black people living in abject poverty.

Struggle for sanctions

In France, Derens’ organization had to work hard to persuade the government to turn the screw on their South African counterparts by implementing sanctions.

“We fought against apartheid and we fought for the release of Mandela. The sanctions against South Africa were supposed to be compulsory, as ruled by the UN, but our government was not implementing them.

"We were incredibly angry, but we were just a group of activists fighting against money and power,” Derens said.

“You have to remember that there was a powerful pro-apartheid lobby in France at the time because we were selling petrol and arms. Those same arms were being used by the South African army and police to shoot at people."

Not only was there a battle to convince those in the corridors of power that apartheid needed to be brought down, Derens and her fellow activists faced a struggle convincing the French public to back them.

“I remember my first job as an activist was to hand out leaflets at Gare St Lazare after the Soweto massacre in 1976. People weren't interested. They didn't care. We had to try hard to convince them.

"And when I see all those people in France crying over Mandela now, I think there are a lot of crocodile tears, because they were not crying when he was locked up in prison."

IN PICTURES: Nelson Mandela and the French connection

Paris murder a turning point

As their campaign continued, Derens and others in RNCA began to work closely with Dulcie September, who, after making a name for herself at anti-apartheid rallies in London, was appointed the ANC Chief Representative in France, Switzerland and Luxembourg.

On the morning of March 29th 1988, September, aged 52, was assassinated outside the Paris ANC office at Rue des Petite-Ecuries as she opened the door to pick up the mail. She was shot five times from behind with a 22-calibre silenced rifle.

Before her murder she had been investigating the trafficking of weapons between France and South Africa. The governments of the two countries, however, insisted she had been killed by a pro-apartheid death squad.

“People in France were shocked by this murder. I was shocked but not surprised as I knew what the South African regime was capable of.

"Her funeral was almost like a state funeral. There were thousands there and many more people came out in support of our movement,” Derens said. “They started to realize then what was really going on in South Africa."

A square in the 10th arrondissement of Paris named after September was officially opened on March 31st 1998, ten years after her death.

(Derens meets Mandela in 1996)

When Mandela returned to Paris in 1996, this time as President of South Africa, Derens was there to meet him again. He insisted on paying homage to September by visiting the Paris suburb of Arcueil where she lived.

“He really wanted to know everything about Dulcie,” Derens said. “What she was like, what work she did, everything. He wanted to pay his respects to someone who had fought for the freedom of black South Africans."


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