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Tributes to Nelson Mandela have been so numerous over the last week, that it is difficult to see how any single one could take precedence.

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But one former anti-apartheid activist inspired by the former South African president had the chance to meet her hero at Buckingham Palace in 1996.

Lela Kogbara, an assistant chief executive for Islington Council, was vice chairman of Action For South Africa (ACTSA) when she was invited to have breakfast with Mr Mandela and six others.


Mrs Kogbara had spent much of the 1980s as an avid campaigner, organising protests and boycotts of anything that supported the South African regime under apartheid.

“He seemed so ordinary in so many ways – noticing things and talking to us as if we were his equals,” said Mrs Kogbara.

“He had no sense of self-importance, no pomposity. Perhaps that was the most extraordinary thing about him. He carried his greatness with humility and authenticity.”

Mr Mandela had been president for two years at this time, and Mrs Kogbara was one of many in Islington who stood alongside his party, the African National Conference (ANC), whose British headquarters were in Penton Street from 1978-1994.

The building even faced a terrorist attack in March 1982, when a 10lb bomb planted by spies of the South African government was detonated.

At the unveiling of a plaque to commemorate the period in 2010, the office was described as a “hive of activity” that possessed a “sense of urgency and purpose.”

Islington Council donated tens of thousands of pounds to the ANC over the period to help those exiled and living in London, and gave up town hall space for free to the exiled party.

Councillors and MPs were also among those who took part in the ongoing protest outside South Africa House, in the Strand, and were arrested.

Among those thrown in a cell during the protests was Islington North MP Jeremy Corbyn, who was held with others and faced court for refusing to leave the protest before being acquitted and donating his compensation to the ANC.

Mr Corbyn, who met Mr Mandela twice, said: “I’m very sad at Mandela’s passing: what a legend, what a man.

“I remember speaking to him on his second visit [to England]. He had this amazing knowledge, he was incredibly well-read and informed from having spent so long in prison.”

Islington Council paid its respects to Nelson Mandela the day after his death, flying the town hall flags at half-mast and opening a book of condolence, which is still open.

Richard Watts, leader of Islington Council, said: “Nelson Mandela’s name is held in the highest esteem by the borough of Islington – we are proud of our role in helping the African National Congress in exile throughout the 1980s.”

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