The Nelson Mandela Bar

The Main Bar in the Students' Union has had many names during its colourful history but for many years it was named the Nelson Mandela Bar.

The name was adopted in 1985 to support the "Free Nelson Mandela" campaign. It was retained until long after his release and election as President of the Republic of South Africa. A shining example of Keele student activism, we asked Keelites of the time what they recalled about the renaming and the Mandela Bar.

"When I started at Keele in 1981 the big upstairs bar was simply referred to as 'the Main Bar'. This was a period when the Anti-Apartheid Campaign on campuses nationwide was moving up a gear and extended to an NUS boycott of Barclays Bank, which continued at the time to have extensive dealings with the South Africa apartheid regime. The Student's Union at Keele in the 1984-85 year passed a motion at a Union General Meeting to name the main Bar as 'The Nelson Mandela Bar'. I was the Speaker of the House at the time and chaired the meeting which passed it. I recall that it was overwhelmingly supported. There were a few dissenting voices from one or two members of the Federation of Conservative Students, one of whom provoked the ire of many by wearing a 'Hang Nelson Mandela' T-shirt. Some of the more dim-witted members of the FCS had gotten into the appalling habit of singing the 'Free Nelson Mandela' anthem but replacing the word 'Free' with 'Hang'. Such was the extremism of the FCS at the time that by 1986 even Normal Tebbitt had had enough and the Organisation was disbanded. Keele had a large and active Anti-Apartheid society in the early to mid-1980s which I recall being run by a guy called John McKenzie (1987) and I believe he was instrumental in the drafting and passing of the motion which renamed the Bar in honour of the great man. I might be wrong there but I am sure John was the driving force. This was all going on at the time of the 1984-85 miners' strike and Keele students and the Union were also very much involved in a solidarity campaign with the striking miners at the nearby Silverdale Colliery. With hindsight, I wonder if this was the last throes of the sixties and seventies style radical student activism that we saw in those twin struggles?"

Mark Ellicott (1985)

"Not only do I remember it, but I was also the person who proposed the motion to rename the Main Bar The Nelson Mandela Bar. I think Mark is right apart from the year. I think it was 1985-86. I stayed with friends that I met in the summer of 1985 when I went to the Anti-Apartheid Movement AGM so the motion had to be sometime between October and December 1985. I do seem to remember Mark was the speaker at the time of the motion. I attended the Anti-Apartheid AGM in London as the Chair of Keele Anti-Apartheid Group and we were all asked to do things to help promote the name of Nelson Mandela. One idea was to name things after Nelson Mandela to help advertise his plight and the Anti-Apartheid movement. I put forward a motion to rename the Keele main bar at the next UGM. It was overwhelmingly passed. I was Chair of Keele Anti-Apartheid Group from 1984 to 1987. A meeting was organised by John Rushton to start an Anti-Apartheid Group at Keele. I think I was elected chair by default. Everyone else there had a better reason why they couldn't do it than me. My excuse was that I didn't have a clue what I was doing. But everyone promised to support me. I did get a lot of support. I started by learning everything that I could about South Africa and Apartheid and the Anti-Apartheid Movement. I was surprised by how much I was unaware of. Naming the main Bar as the Nelson Mandela Bar was about publicising Nelson Mandela and what was happening in South Africa. For the movement, it was about building pressure for the release of Nelson Mandela. He had been in prison for 22 years. It was just under five years before he was free. At the time it seemed an almost impossible task because of the intransigence of the Apartheid Regime, and their willingness to murder and imprison opponents. I am just pleased that we played a small part in opposing the Apartheid regime and recognising Mandela as a great man. I confess that I didn't realise until after he was released just how great a man he was."

John McKenzie (1987)

"I have reviewed "Concourse" from our sabbatical year. The Nelson Mandela motion was after our year. The ghastly University refurbishment earned the Main Bar the nickname "Ronald MacDonald Bar" during our year. But we negotiated an add-on refurbishment (the University had underspent a bit and it showed, which took place soon after we left. I'm pretty sure that President Tony Bell (1987) proposed the Nelson Mandela Bar name. I certainly went to the AGM in January 1986. I'm not certain that this event turned South African politics but it was all changed there six or seven years later, so who knows? I seem to recall some people being quite against the idea. The SU Secretary John White (1984) looked just like Terry "that bloke from the Specials" Hall back then - and they sang "Free Nelson Mandela". Now that was a standard in our day."

Ian Harris (1984)

"I think that things gathered momentum with the release of the Specials' "Free Nelson Mandela" song in 1983 or 1984."

Mark Harding (1981)

"From the Students'' Union bar you could see the library through one window and the chapel through another, both with their respective attractions. As an undergraduate from 1972-76, doing the then compulsory Foundation Year and joint honours (American Studies and English) I had spent a disproportionate time there, playing table football or waiting for an event in the ballroom. That might be anything from a lecture by Eno on electronic music to a fiery Union debate on taking over the staff common room in Keele Hall or details of bus trips to an anti-Vietnam war rally. There was no Barclays Bank on Keele or any other campus, in protest against their apartheid links.

When I returned in 1986-88 to do a master's in American Studies, I would cycle up the hill and go straight to the bar, or rather the canteen which shared the space, for breakfast. Now named after the jailed South African political activist it had for me the feel of a recovering hangover from the heady student movements of the 1960s and 1970s, not just the radical theories and quasi-mystical philosophies but more importantly also a practical demonstration of aspiring social equality. A group of overseas students formed a 'society' and hired the Union minibus for next to nothing. As the designated driver, I got to visit bits of England everyone should see, though it all nearly ended when we were running out of petrol on Saddleworth Moor. The only filling station for miles was Shell, and there was a black South African girl in the back. Mixing my deep-rooted liberalism with a bit of tired pragmatism I begged that we put in just enough to get to the next filling station or spend the night with the victims of one of England's most notorious serial killings. To my enduring shame, it was my only conscious piece of sanction busting and one that the aforementioned passenger was not to let me forget.

When I returned for my doctoral studies in 1990 it was still the Nelson Mandela bar, though having undergone one of its almost annual refurbishments. Like the Paris skyline, each president would leave his or her mark in some tangible way. The view was more or less the same, and down the road between computer-connected cricket pavilion library and devil-horned grey brick chapel, two boys raced their mountain bikes as a prelude. One was the white son of a staff member, the other the black son of the South African Shell lady, now coincidentally also returned for a doctorate. As we watched I pointed to the bar. Mandela had been released and the plaque above the bar took on a commemorative air rather than its original one of symbolic solidarity. I asked what kind of country she thought she would be returning to. She laughed. I got a couple of drinks. A couple of weeks later I had my viva - April 24th 1994. After being informed I had passed the late great Charles Swann let me telephone Johannesburg, where my fellow doctoral candidate had just voted for the first time in her life. A few months later I went to visit."

Andrew Graham (1984)

"By 1994 Mandela had been freed and venues named after him were becoming slightly clichéd, nevertheless, it was a statement of a kind, and on a recent return to Keele I did visit the bar, reflecting on what name might be up there. Desmond Tutu? Hugo Chavez? Michelle Obama? The name on the bar was not just a symbol. It was part of a wider movement. In those days there was no Barclay's Bank on campus - there still may not be but there now could be. It was part of a national student boycott of the institution for its links with South Africa. My own personal transformation and journey to freedom - that's the overall feeling I associate with the bar, with the Students, Union. There was an Afro-Caribbean disco on the top floor on Fridays or Saturdays. I was curious! Race consciousness is weird. If anyone knew that it was Mandela. There were many Keeles then. I wonder if there still are. It had great memories, as I bought breakfast next to it and in the evening queued for pints in plastic skiffs and packets of crisps to make it possible to drink the Watney's Red Barrel and then make my way to the ballroom. Al Stewart. Sister Sledge. Yes. Mandela. It was a great venue for students - there must be thousands of memories, all individual and in some way special. It was a spiritual centre for me (modesty prohibits me from mentioning that I was one of the top three table footballers at the time. We laid challenges for 6p and greased the rods with crisp packets). But on busy nights it was also a grotty dive that wouldn't have been out of place in downtown Johannesburg or Orlando West."

Andrew Graham (1984)

"I recall an election during my time at Keele (1976-1980) which I think was for Chancellor in which the candidates included the then Chancellor Princess Margaret and Nelson Mandela. There was a vigorous campaign on behalf of Mandela but as he was in prison at the time many students voted for other candidates on the grounds that he would not be able to attend the graduation ceremonies. It seems somewhat trite now but at the time there were some vociferous debates in the Union. The main supporters of Mandela were the Labour Club which put off those students who were non-political or supported other parties. There was a quite strong Conservative club that once proposed a motion at the Union to buy a racehorse. I guess that when Princess Margaret was re-elected the bar was named after Mandela as some sort of compensation for being runner up."

William Sterling (1980)

"I don't know anything about the decision process to get the bar called the Nelson Mandela Bar - but I was a frequent user. At the time it was the only non-smoking bar in the SU - and as a non-smoker, really the only place I liked to hang out. I was a pretty cool place actually - low bench-seating, lots of space to sprawl out, low lighting, open after the regular pubs had closed. I didn't know that it has stopped being called the Nelson Mandela bar. Has it? What is it called now? Or does it even exist? When the great man died this week I mentioned the bar to my son (currently doing University interviews) - he was pretty bemused that we named a bar after the man. Of course, he was born after Mandela was made president! I'd like to go back to the Nelson Mandela bar sometime for old times' sake. But the most important thing: it might be that people could think that naming a student bar after the great man was a bit trite or trivial. But actually, I think it achieved what it set out to achieve. When the first changed the name of the bar I had not heard of Nelson Mandela. Of course, he then came up in conversation very often as we discussed the rights and wrongs of naming the bar. So I really do think that it created a level of awareness that a simple campaign of posters or talks in the SU would not have achieved."

Rob Collins (1984)

"I reckon it was 1985 but the Conservative group was very strong – I had a friend that was in it doing chemistry and physics and they were right of Norman Tebbit! I don't remember them chanting though. I do remember passport control when Maggie thought about amalgamating us with North Staffs Poly as it was then – both sides weren't keen!"

Sarah Dack (1988)

"All I know is that when I came to Keele in 1982, it was already called Nelson Mandela Bar if I recall correctly. When I asked "who the hell is Nelson Mandela"? The response I received was "just some weird guy in prison"! Having come from an American background (sorry, no one is perfect I know) and having just arrived at Keele, where I came from, crisps were called chips, just as much as chips were called French fries, at least it was so in my, alas Americanised, brain. So on the same day when I got that reply above, I approached the Nelson Mandela Bar in the Students Union for the first time. There was a beautiful lady standing ready to serve anyone who wanted, at the Nelson Mandela Bar. Behind this beautiful lady, was the biggest wall of crisps that the world had ever seen, starting with salt and vinegar on the top left and reaching all the way up to hedgehog flavour on the bottom right. So, seeing that wonderful wall, I ordered a lemonade and some "chips"! And the lovely lady replied: "I'm so sorry, we don't sell those here." And I replied, pointing at the wall "Hey babe, you could have fooled me!" And she smiled and replied, "You're not from around here are you?" Very astute observational powers she had. I wish you luck in your hunt for Nelson Mandela. Will the Bar be named after someone new now? Someone who is in prison fighting for his political views? Pussy Riot maybe? Just an idea. But I wouldn't call it Obama Bar. With best wishes from Germany."

Peer Schmitz (1985)

"I'd love there to be some sort of story or personal connection between Mandela and Keele, but I think the truth is less exciting. I think it was a piece of student politics akin to the white line that was painted around the Union building in my time, after it was declared a Nuclear Free Zone. In the Eighties, Mandela was still in prison and was a far edgier and more controversial figure than the distinguished elder statesman he was to become. On the one hand, he was a freedom fighter, a prisoner of conscience and a victim of injustice and oppression. On the other hand, he was the figurehead and spiritual leader of an organisation that - at that time - was planting bombs in shopping malls, and punishing 'collaborators' by putting petrol-filled tyres around their necks and setting them on fire. And he was married to Winnie, whose role in the disappearance of a boy called Stompie was just coming to light. So it was done the thing, in universities and colleges in the UK at that time, for left-leaning councils and student unions to show their radical colours, and enrage 'The Man', by naming their buildings after Nelson Mandela. And this, I think, is what happened at Keele. I'm sorry I don't have a better story for you!"

Warwick Cairns (1985)

"You are right -- the bar was renamed after Nelson Mandela during that period, but I am stretching my memory to figure out exactly when. I do remember that there were larger campaigns around disinvestment in South Africa and not using Barclays -- but these were also NUS campaigns."

Louise Marshall (Gray) (1980)

"I'm pretty sure the bar was named around 1986, almost certainly after a UGM motion, the SU minutes may well provide the details, obviously at the time the anti-apartheid movement in the UK was very active and Keele was one of many student union bars to be renamed. I visited Keele for the first time in about 20 years for the community day and I was surprised to see the bar is now the Scruffy Squirrel - not quite have the same ring of political activism!"

Karen Walsh (1987)

"I have a vague recollection that this was a suggestion from the central UK organisation for students (NUS?) at the time that all universities should call their bar the Nelson Mandela bar. I think there was a General Meeting to vote on it at Keele which I probably attended. I don't recall it being a contentious issue at the time. I recall when it was changed to the Nelson Mandela bar – probably around 1985. But everyone still called it the 'Main Bar' afterwards – as there were two other bars in the SU at the time – the Ballroom bar and the Allright bar. Not sure what it gets called now."

Tim Hill (1988)

"After consulting two fellow 80's graduates we think the re-naming was circa 1985-1986 after a lively SU debate. Can't remember much about the debate I'm afraid. In fact I can't remember much about the 80's full stop if I'm honest".

Andy Price (1988)

"I was at Keele when the "new" bar was built and it was decided to give it a name to honour it. There was a big meeting at the Students' Union to discuss the matter. The anti-apartheid League (I think that was their name) proposed the name "The Nelson Mandela Bar". A lot of people knew who Mandela was and the situation in South Africa and they supported the motion. The Young Conservatives spoke heatedly against the proposal, naming the ANC as a terrorist group and Mandela as a convicted criminal terrorist. The sparks flew. The Tories were following the official line of the Thatcher government, in power at the time. Some of my more radical friends objected to the "trendy Wendy" stance of the anti-apartheid group, as it was respectably rebellious and not extreme enough. Half the student bars at the time seemed to be called the Mandela Bar. My friend suggested that the bar be named the Baader Meinhof Bar, but this was rejected by the majority. Eventually, after talking about the issue for hours on end, the vote was taken and the official name was given. I have tried to explain to my sons what apartheid was like and how volatile the situation was at the time, but it really is quite hard really. I hope you are more successful and that the name of the bar leads some of the more curious students to understand who Mandela was and why he was a great man, worthy of admiration."

Justin Sare (1989)

"I remember in about 1993 we voted to change the name from the frankly embarrassing Mandela Bar to the Frankie Howerd bar, but despite the majority voting for change the po-faced left-wing hack self-righteous right-on student politicians blocked it. Clearly not all, including myself, were happy or impressed with the ongoing "tribute"."

Ian White (1994)

"When I first went to Keele in '77 Sam's Bar wasn't a bar at all, just a sort of 'spare' area between the main bar (now 'the Lounge') and the ballroom, connected to both via glass doors. It housed a 'pins' (table football) table and a pool table. With the help of brewery money, a bar was installed in 1979, shutting off the connection to the main bar (other than possibly a fire door) and completely removing the wall between it and the ballroom. It was named the 'Ballroom Bar', enabling a separate bar to be used only by people who had paid to go into the ballroom, although I recall getting some flak when I arranged a bar extension for a Chas 'n' Dave gig in the ballroom bar and not the main bar!. I'm pretty sure it also enabled us to increase the 'fire capacity' of the ballroom to 770 people, theoretically enabling us to increase the budget for live bands, although in practice we rarely sold-out gigs anyway (apart from Balls, where we had a 'full building' capacity of 1100). At some point in the last 30 years, it seems to have been re-incorporated into the 'main' bar, with roller-shutter doors to the ballroom, presumably allowing the flexibility to open into the ballroom or not, depending on requirements. Perhaps it was at this time that it was renamed 'Sam's bar', but who Sam is or was I've no idea."

Chris Parkins (1981)

"It certainly stayed as the Nelson Mandela Bar well into the 90s. I guess the reason the name was dropped (and the same was done at other Unions around the country) was that the great man became one of the most prominent world leaders and there was no longer any need to show solidarity with his cause?"

Martin Saxon (1998)

PS from the editor

Did you know that Adelaide Tshukudu Tambo's funeral was attended by Nelson Mandela, her close personal friend? She graduated from Keele with an MA in Gerontology in 1992. "Mama" Tambo (1929-2007) was a prominent anti-apartheid activist, political exile, and regarded as a hero of the liberation struggle against apartheid in South Africa. Following the end of apartheid, she served as a Member of the RSA Parliament from 1994 to 1999 and received the Order of the Baobab in Gold, one of the highest honours bestowed by the post-1994 South African government.

Sam's Bar was the name of the bar adjacent to the main Ballroom on the first floor. It is adjacent on the other side to the Main Bar (which was once a cafeteria, later a bar called the Lounge and after a refurbishment in 2011-2012, the Scruffy Squirrel. It is indoors from the outside balcony. Sam's (side) Bar was called Blueprint after the refurbishment.