“King John could surely never have anticipated the enduring global legacy of Magna Carta when he agreed to its terms in 1215.”
This joint statement, recently issued by representatives of the British Library, Lincoln and Salisbury Cathedrals, couldn’t ring truer for me.
As we approach the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, on a personal level, I will be celebrating the 40th anniversary of my own “Magna Carta”, the day I boarded the airplane in Cape Town, in 1975, bound for England and freedom from South Africa’s apartheid regime.
Because I, of mixed race, fell in love with a white man, deemed punishable by prison under apartheid’s Immorality Act, we were faced with a choice of either breaking off our clandestine relationship and going our separate ways, or leaving the country to be together.
In my memoir, An Immoral Proposal, I recount what my first impressions of living in a free country felt like.
“For me, snow, rain, hail, whatever didn’t matter as long as I was with my beloved. My new world now consisted of television, central heating, zebra pedestrian crossings, the London A-Z booklet, underground tubes, ancient brick buildings dating back to Noah, names like Edgeware and Golders Green and Charing Cross. On New Year’s Eve, walking the frigid streets of Hampstead with Michael’s university friends, yet again felt like being on a movie set, with the romantic ambience of subdued streetlights reflecting off the wet pavements. Then suddenly disappearing into the bowels of the earth to catch the underground Tube, I turned into Alice in Wonderland.
Michael had reserved a table at a restaurant on a barge docked on a canal somewhere in Camden Town for our group. Lights glistening on this waterway, the restaurant with its crisp linen, the company comprising people from French Canada, Brazil, England and South Africa, were all so magical to me. For the first time in our relationship, Michael and I were able dine out publicly. It felt so strange and what’s more, nobody was looking at us suggesting we were doing something wrong. Unless you’d grown up in South Africa during the apartheid years, you’d just not believe how liberating it was to enjoy an occasion like this. I drank in my first taste of freedom like a newborn infant taking its first gulp of air.”
For me, there is something of an irony about Magna Carta. The driving force behind the document was the desire of land barons to preserve their way of life with scant regard for the rank and file.
The architects of South Africa’s apartheid regime created a political blue print that would preserve an idyllic way of life for a select group – those born white at the expense of those who were not.
The good thing about Magna Carta, despite its original intent, is that over time this charter has evolved into an iconic symbol of rights and freedoms for all peoples. It is held in the highest regard by British as well as American legal fraternities, and often cited by politicians.
Lord Denning called it “the greatest constitutional document of all times – the foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot.”
Who knows how Magna Carta might have impacted the likes of Voltaire who said “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.”
Who knows how Magna Carta might have impacted Martin Luther King Junior’s dream, “… that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
And who knows how Magna Carta might have impacted Nelson Mandela during the Rivonia trial in 1964, “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
In light of what great men and women have sacrificed, we would do well not to take our liberties and freedoms for granted. As Blackheath Dawn invites writers of all ages to express what Magna Carta means to them, let those fingers loose over your keyboards in commitment to and celebration of the 800th anniversary of the sealing of the Magna Carta.