Answering our 7 Questions this month is the Honorary Consul for South Africa to Scotland, Mr Brian Filling. Niall Gray caught up with Brian to discuss his consular role, his and Glasgow’s links with the anti-apartheid movement, and more.
Q: Brian, you’re the Honorary Consul for South Africa to Scotland. What is the role of an Honorary Consul?
In general, countries often pursue their diplomatic links through the various embassies or high commissions they run but in regions where they don’t have a presence, they often appoint honorary consuls to be a link for the area they serve. It’s almost always a person who’s native to the country that governments appoint and as a result of their honorary nature, they’re not paid officials.
Honorary consuls can vary greatly in what their role is. Some do quite a bit about visa enquiries, and I am not in that category. Often people can get confused, especially when their situation is desperate, regarding the difference between me and someone with executive authority.
Other countries such as France, India and Pakistan have extensive consulate systems in Scotland that can deal with a whole host of issues. However I’m the sole representative for South Africa. This means my role also has a real emphasis on forging links with various organizations, whether it’s the Scottish government, trade unions, or education and business institutions.
Advising authorities also plays a key role, so there’s really a lot of work in both directions. This makes the job highly varied, which of course means there are as many challenges as there are successes. Though overall I’ve found my role to be a very fruitful one.
Q: You have substantial links to South Africa. How would you summarise those links?
One of my links has been assisting with health issues in South Africa. For example, in the early 1990s Glasgow Caledonian University wanted to approach Nelson Mandela about receiving an honorary doctorate. They asked me if I’d contact him to see if he’d accept. I talked to him about it and he was very agreeable. However there was one condition: namely, that Glasgow Caledonian would, in some way, have to help the new South Africa.
This was realised through a dedicated reconstruction and development program. It resulted in me travelling to South Africa with Professor David Walsh in 1993, to discuss with them how exactly we could help with reconstruction. That led to a big development in links, which was spearheaded by a new placement scheme for Caledonia’s nurses, in partnership with the University of Transkei. Post-1994 this scheme spread nationwide and it has really helped to transform South Africa’s fledgling education system. Since then, Glasgow Caledonian has extended its role, with optometry students now regularly helping on a ‘health train’ called the “Phelophepa” – the train of hope – which brings essential medical knowledge to South Africa’s vast rural areas.
I’ve also had considerable contact with South Africans here over the years, due to the fact that many of them were in exile. Indeed, many of the people I’ve met have ultimately become leaders in modern South Africa, such as former foreign minister Nkosazana Zuma, whose first meeting with activists in Britain was in Glasgow.
“Many of the people I’ve met have ultimately become leaders in modern South Africa, such as former foreign minister Nkosazana Zuma, whose first meeting with activists in Britain was in Glasgow.”
I’ve also had a lot of contact with the country’s former High Commissioner, Lindiwe Mabuza, whom I worked with in organising Burns Suppers in London’s South Africa House. We of course followed all the traditions, toasting the immortal memory, toasting the lassies and so on. And of course, there was always a great variety of South African speakers, so it was really a great place for well-spirited dialogue.
With regards to other connections, I’ve been quite involved with renewables, which is also an industry of great importance here in Scotland. There’s some companies which are now heavily involved in South Africa and in particular the Eastern Cape region, which has quite a special historical relationship with Scotland. This is due to events such as the 1841 establishment of the Lovedale educational institution by Scottish missionaries, as well as the activities of the closely connected Fort Hare University. There’s real history there: Nelson Mandela, as well as other anti-apartheid activists, such as Govan Mbeki, were educated and subsequently thrown out of these institutions. I’ve therefore tried to concentrate my efforts there.
So really, my links cross a variety of areas. I also do what I can to facilitate other connections, such as South Africa’s extensive presence at the Edinburgh Festival.
Q: You have a strong history in the anti-apartheid movement. How did you get involved and what was your proudest moment?
Well, my parents who quite politically active, and they had this friendship with Cecil Williams. Cecil was the driver of Nelson Mandela’s car when he was caught by the apartheid authorities. So Cecil ended up being deported to Britain and became friends with my parents.
But whilst that was certainly part of my background, I think you could say that my first real involvement was when I was a student at Glasgow University. It was life at university, the debating society in particular, which thrust me into the movement. Debates were big affairs at that time. Some would say that it was due to the fact that there was very little other entertainment but I think it had something to do with the pubs closing their doors at ten o’clock. And once the pubs shut, people piled in to listen to the debates. So you could have up to one thousand, often very drunk people, at some of these events. You needed to be funny, sharp, and on your feet. My maiden speech was given in 1966, arguing against arms shipments to apartheid South Africa. It was a really good training ground for the future.
“My maiden speech was given in 1966, arguing against arms shipments to apartheid South Africa. It was a really good training ground for the future.”
I also helped host several initiatives, such as South Africa Week at university, which welcomed various speakers from the continent’s many liberation movements. After that my involvement only grew. I ended up in London in the 1970s, meeting lots of ANC exiles, and eventually came back up to organize the Scottish Anti-Apartheid Coordination Committee. I became the founding Chair of the movement and ended up involved with numerous initiatives to this day. In reality, you really don’t set out to be part of something like this forever – but that’s what often ends up happening!
In terms of my proudest moment, it’s difficult to choose. Certainly the day when Mandela was given freedom of the city here in Glasgow stands out as one. I chaired a meeting with Nigeria’s then Vice-President, Alex Ekwueme, who accepted the award on behalf of Mandela, as he was still incarcerated at that time.
This eventually led to another proud moment, when I was asked if I would act as a liaison on behalf of Mandela when he was preparing to visit Britain. It was a great honour, though a lot of work, as I had to convince nine cities, who had also awarded him their own freedom of the city, that he was only going to officially visit one, namely Glasgow – the first to offer him the honour. His people didn’t want him going all over the place, you see.
In more recent times, being awarded South Africa’s national Order of the Companions of O.R. Tambo, in 2012 in Pretoria, was also memorable. All of South Africa’s leadership was there, including various anti-apartheid activists such as the Cuban Jorge Risquet, who played a vital role in ending apartheid South Africa’s border war with Angola. So overall, my own part in the struggle for freedom in South Africa has been dotted with many good memories.
Q: You mentioned that Glasgow was the first city to offer Nelson Mandela ‘Freedom of the City’. Why was this so?
It was really interesting how it all came about. Mandela was given freedom of the city in 1981. Preceding that, there was a great amount of political activity in Britain concerning the 1979 negotiations for the independence of then-Rhodesia, which is now Zimbabwe. It was during all this that Glasgow’s Lord Provost, David Hodge, for some reason, decided to invite South Africa’s apartheid ambassador to lunch.
We immediately called a picket at the Glasgow City Chambers, which drew a huge amount of support. Eventually, David was thrown out of the city’s Labour group. The whole event was all quite an embarrassment. Though this was made right at the next council election by the new Lord Provost Michael Kelly, who awarded Mandela freedom of the city to make up for the affair.
“Lord Provost Michael Kelly eventually ended up addressing the UN, forming a hugely successful campaign to encourage mayors around the world to do what Glasgow did. It really helped put the city on the map.”
It’s important to remember that at this time, Mandela was still commonly viewed as nothing but a terrorist. The media and the government in particular were avid supporters of this view. As a result, Glasgow got quite a bad backlash for giving out the award, though the move ultimately paved the way for the city’s close cooperation with the UN special committee concerning apartheid.
Lord Provost Michael Kelly eventually ended up addressing the UN, forming a hugely successful campaign to encourage mayors around the world to do what Glasgow did. It really helped put the city on the map. So naturally it was really a special moment when Mandela arrived all those years later to the city and he was able to see the effort that Glasgow, a place four thousand miles away from South Africa, had put in to support him throughout his fight.
Q: You’re now spearheading a campaign to have a statue of Nelson Mandela erected in Glasgow. What can you tell us about this campaign?
Nelson of course died in December 2013. The next night, we held a gathering at Nelson Mandela Place – not just to mourn his death but to celebrate his life and achievements. That event had a great turnout for something so spontaneous. This then led to discussions with the City Council over how we could commemorate Glasgow’s rich links with Mandela.
Two main ideas came out of these talks. One idea was to create a bust of Mandela’s head, which can now be seen in the City Chambers. The other was the creation of a permanent, public memorial in Glasgow and I ultimately became the person in charge of trying to make this project happen. Behind the scenes we had to do a lot of work in preparation before the campaign could go public.
For example, we have started a new charity named the Nelson Mandela Scottish Memorial Foundation, which aims to increase public knowledge of Mandela and his various connections to the city. We hope that the foundation will at some point involve an educational aspect, highlighting Nelson’s role in the wider struggle against racism.
However the immediate objective at the moment is to get a statue erected. We have received planning permission from the council to have it placed in Nelson Mandela Place. As a result we’re now trying to raise enough money to have the project fully realised but we’re lucky to have a great selection of patrons who are on board with the idea. This includes Sir Alex Ferguson, who has attended a number of our events, and also Andrew Mlangeni and Denis Goldberg, the last two survivors of the Rivonia Trials, which saw Mandela thrown in prison for twenty seven years.
“We have started a new charity named the Nelson Mandela Scottish Memorial Foundation, which aims to increase public knowledge of Mandela and his various connections to the city. We hope that the foundation will at some point involve an educational aspect, highlighting Nelson’s role in the wider struggle against racism.”
So we’ve got a great deal of support for getting the statue erected. Though I hope that the project can ultimately become more than just something symbolic. For young people now, Mandela and apartheid are just events in history. Indeed, most students I talk to now weren’t even alive when Mandela was freed from prison in 1990. I’ve always thought that racism is something that will inevitably rear its head if you don’t keep fighting it.
So by explaining the struggle in South Africa, and by using Mandela as a symbol of it, I think we can help to fight against discrimination in future generations. That’s the plan – but we need donations to make it happen.
Q: How do you regard the current situation in Zimbabwe? Does the country now have a chance to move forward and prosper under President Mnangagwa?
Since it’s early days, this is quite a difficult question to answer. I can, however, tell you what I fear for the country. Zimbabwe’s history is interesting in the sense that the West has always been interested in the area. Of course, its former name, Rhodesia, is directly connected to the actions of Cecil Rhodes, who duped the natives into handing over mining rights for a few rifles. This eventually led to the white settlers’ unilateral declaration of independence in 1965, which only further engrained a long-lasting issue over land redistribution.
This problem wasn’t even solved by the Lancaster House talks, which paved the way for the country’s independence in 1980, under the rule of Robert Mugabe. Land reform was explicitly mentioned as an issue that could not be investigated for twenty years in the new constitution. And whilst Britain agreed compensation, it ultimately reneged on such promises.
“Land reform was explicitly mentioned as an issue that could not be investigated for twenty years in the new constitution. And whilst Britain agreed compensation, it ultimately reneged on such promises.”
Now, I have a distinct feeling that Mnangagwa is perhaps being promised some form of compensation behind the scenes but it’s very unlikely that this will happen without conditions. No doubt there are also a myriad of other forces, both internal and external, that are attempting to further their own interests, quite possibly in opposition to what is best for the country. It’s important to remember that Zimbabwe’s problems are not just the making of Robert Mugabe, although he certainly didn’t help in a great many ways.
However, if the country opens up in terms of debate and discussion, there’s a good chance of creating a new, better country. But if self-interested forces can somehow get the upper hand, the outcome may not be good. So only time will tell.
Q: Could Scotland do more concerning its own para-diplomacy?
Scotland isn’t an independent country and therefore there are international restrictions for the government. But since devolution, there has been a marked increase in what it’s done externally, and that is a positive thing. I’ve always been in favour of forging Scottish international connections – even in the years before devolution. It’s certainly good to take advantage of the country’s historical links all over the world, whilst of course acknowledging such links often possess negative aspects, alongside the more positive.
I think it’s good for any country to market itself internationally but it doesn’t need to be just governments that do this. There are so many organisations and institutions that could and should have these international connections. And these connections are valuable because you really can learn from other countries. This can help our development here and can ultimately help to combat issues such as parochialism and racism.
So can Scotland do more? Yes, I’m sure it could. We’re obviously a small country and so our abilities are limited in comparison to much larger states. Personally, I’d like to see this issue overcome by an emphasis on real people-to-people relations, internationally. If that’s facilitated by the Scottish government, then all to the good.
I certainly think there’s great potential for further Scottish cooperation with South Africa. There’s really no question that Mandela’s connections to Glasgow, and the experiences of historical and contemporary Scots in South Africa, could play a key role in building mutually beneficial relationships on the ground.
“I certainly think there’s great potential for further Scottish cooperation with South Africa. There’s really no question that Mandela’s connections to Glasgow, and the experiences of historical and contemporary Scots in South Africa, could play a key role in building mutually beneficial relationships on the ground.”
I would say however, that there is perhaps room for improvement with regards to the current scope of Scottish activities abroad. There’s huge potential for forging connections all over the globe but they remain largely unexplored due to official plans and priorities in place, such as the current enthusiasm for projects in Malawi.
Perhaps it’s time that this foreign involvement could be spread further afield and widened to include a number of other countries as well. Of course, I will always make the case for strengthening ties with South Africa, which shares not only a common language but also a similar culture. But there’s certainly an extensive list of untapped opportunities and connections Scotland could engage with, all around the world.
Brian Filling is Chair of the Nelson Mandela Scottish Memorial Foundation.The major early objective of the Foundation is to raise funds to erect a statue in memory of Nelson Mandela in the street that bears his name and so honour his life, legacy and his special relationship with the people of Glasgow, Scotland and the UK. Donations can be made through the Foundation’s website: www.mandelascottishmemorial.org
Words: Niall Gray. Images: David Pratt.