Rachel Holmes

This is a story a friend of mine told me about going to university in Cape Town in 1970s apartheid South Africa. A rural farmgirl from a modest background, her arrival at university was the very first city experience of her life.  She was shy, scared and intimated by the urban sophisticates who ran the Fresher’s Week and initially hid in her room, nibbling on rusks, drinking bush tea and feeling a failure. After a few days she found the courage to go into the Student’s Union to get some information and, she hoped – perhaps - for the first time since she’d arrived, talk to another student.

With trepidation, she walked out of the bright Cape sunlight into the Student’s Union. She stepped into an overwhelming, animated mass of her fellow students, all strangers. Singing, chanting, waving banners, pinning up posters, brandishing placards, handing out fliers. As her eyes adjusted to the indoor light the legends on the banners and posters came into focus, accompanied by a seemingly univocal chant:


Disoriented and self-conscious in her homespun veldt clothes she hung back in a recess of the hall, watching, listening. Eventually she resolved to find her voice and ask the question that was now perplexing and bothering her enough to push her out of her silence.  She walked up to one of the brightly dressed, confident, tousle-haired students handing out fliers and lightly tapped him on the forearm to get his attention.           

He turned to face her, she hesitated. And then she asked her first ever question at university:

“Excuse me. What is this Free Mandela, and where can I get some please?”

Two middle-aged women sitting together in 2013 South Africa in a Karoo sunset, we laughed together long and delightedly at this charming youthful memory. But my friend told me this story for a serious reason:

“Rachel, you need to understand how completely and utterly ignorant and naive I was about apartheid and politics when I arrived at Varsity. When I got there a whole new world of books and writers opened up to me.  I found in books and the voices of writers all the truths and questions that had been hidden from me since birth, and that I hadn’t been able to see ‘til then. And I encountered collective action, campaigning, group protest and resistance. I discovered - through writers and through activism - the concept of liberty, and the struggle for rights and freedoms.”

Free Mandela seemed an impossible, idealistic dream in 1970s apartheid South Africa. But it came to be because people, writers amongst them, dared to speak truth to power.  Happy Birthday Liberty.  Long may you continue: and for your birthday, let’s celebrate with some of the Free Mandela that reminds us of the true meaning of the onward struggle for liberty.


Rachel Holmes’ new book, 'Eleanor Marx: A Life' is published by Bloomsbury on 8 May 2014, described by Gillian Slovo as “a dazzling account of a woman and her family, an age and a movement, that grips from the first page to the last.” Last year Rachel co-edited, with Lisa Appignanesi and Susie Orbach, the much-discussed Fifty Shades of Feminism (Virago), to which LIBERTY director Shami Chakrabarti contributed an essay. 

While government watches you, who watches the government?