Nelson Mandela’s goddaughter Tanya von Ahlefeldt discusses Mandela’s legacy for the world as we continue to fight the issues raised by the Black Lives Matter movement. I interviewed von Ahlefeldt, now living in the UK and promoting Mandela’s ideals of diversity, inclusion and equality to understand more about Mandela’s approach to making a difference.


Tanya von Ahlefeldt’s father was a gifted white South African lawyer named James Kantor who was  one of Mandela’s co-defendants in the infamous Rivonia trial held in Pretoria, South Africa from 1963-1964. Von Ahlefeldt describes the trial of 10 individuals, most of whom were members of the then-banned African National Congress (ANC) as ‘the most appalling fabricated trial in history’ in which Mandela and his co-defendants were convicted of sabotage and sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben Island.


Kantor’s friendship with Mandela, also a lawyer, before the trial was clandestine as relationships between white and black people were not tolerated under apartheid. Kantor was arrested by the police shortly after the initial mass arrests before the Rivonia trial, when he went to the Rivonia Farm (ANC headquarters at the time) to collect the children of one of the men arrested. On the basis that Kantor knew where the chicken feed was kept on the farm, the police assumed Kantor was an ANC member. Mandela, Kantor and the others were detained in prison under the 90-day imprisonment rule which allowed the police to keep suspects in prison with no charge for up to 90 days.


Alongside Mandela, Kantor was held in prison and faced the death penalty. Kantor was tortured in prison, suffered “the most horrendous nervous breakdown” and the police tried to bribe him to give evidence against Mandela. Knowing that he would be tortured, Kantor asked Mandela to tell him nothing about ANC activities, so he would not be able to reveal any information under torture. As there was no evidence against him, Kantor was released and then fled South Africa for the UK, knowing that he would be re-arrested if he stayed.


Asked about Mandela’s legacy, von Ahlefeldt said that alongside the enormous amount of wisdom that he left us with, Mandela believed that “education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world” and that the ignorance we have seen in recent times leading to the Black Lives Matter movement is something that has to change.


Flagging the importance of action to force change, Mandela famously said that “when a man is denied the right to live the life he believes in, he has no choice but to become an outlaw”. “Honesty with compassion helps people to understand that we can learn from the past and use education, awareness raising, empathy, examples and learning from history to make real change for the future, but it takes action, not rhetoric.”