Did former Observer editor David Astor save Nelson Mandela's life?

David Astor, former editor of the Observer, was a journalistic giant. A new film asks whether his anti-apartheid campaign saved Nelson Mandela's life

It's not difficult to pick out highlights from David Astor's 27-year reign as editor of this newspaper, from 1948 to 1975. He placed the paper at the very centre of all the major political, social and cultural debates that were breaking out in postwar Britain. In doing so, he made the Observer a leading advocate for a "new and better society". This was a time marked by a determined search for new ways of organising society after the brutality of the previous decades – better social welfare, redistribution of wealth, nuclear disarmament and liberalisation of social attitudes were just some of the issues being discussed.

But the Observer not only ventilated these debates, it also became a participant in them. And through its pages it had a material impact on Britain in the 50s, 60s and 70s. Among its list of achievements, the Observer under Astor was instrumental in the establishment of Amnesty International, the World Wildlife Fund and Index on Censorship, and played a key role in the debates that led to the abolition of capital punishment in the UK.

But even these gargantuan successes pale when placed next to the role the paper played in fighting apartheid throughout the second half of the last century. Nelson Mandela acknowledged as much when, on Astor's death 10 years ago, he said. "Under him, the Observer supported the African National Congress from the early years of apartheid, when we most needed it and when most newspapers ignored it. During the years on Robben Island I knew the Observer was continuing to keep myself and my colleagues in the minds of the British people while our names were banned in our own country."

It's difficult to overstate the role the Observer played in the fight against apartheid. This is one of the reasons we have made a short film to remind people of the crucial interventions made by the Observer, when few other papers were interested. The film is designed as a tribute to Astor and a way of highlighting one of this paper's greatest ever stories.

The Observer's most telling contribution was during the Rivonia trial of 1963-1964, when the senior leadership of the then-outlawed ANC (including Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Govan Mbeki) were tried for 221 acts of sabotage designed to overthrow the apartheid system. If found guilty, the accused faced the death penalty.

Shaun Johnson, chief executive of the Mandela-Rhodes Foundation in Cape Town, and a former editor of the flagship liberal South African newspaper the Weekly Mail, is in no doubt about how significant the Observer's coverage was during this crucial trial.

"I've spoken to many of the Rivonia trialists, and I've spoken to Mr Mandela, and I believe that if the Rivonia trial had taken place without the world's media covering it, then it is possible that the apartheid government would have hanged the trialists. I feel quite strongly that the Observer led the way, unquestionably, by a country mile.

"I mean, imagine South Africa's history if Nelson Mandela and his fellow trialists had been hanged. And the fact that the Observer relentlessly, every Sunday, was publishing front-page reports on this, I have no doubt influenced wiser people within the cabinet at that time to say, 'Wow, this could be really bad international publicity.'"

Winnie Mandela, speaking earlier this year while being filmed for the Astor tribute, was even more explicit about the role the Observer played during the trial. "Had it not been for the coverage of the Observer, those men would have faced the death penalty. We knew that, and they knew that too: it was the Observer that saved the leadership of the ANC."

Richard Astor, son of David, who also appears on film, has evidence that supports these assertions. "My brother-in-law was researching a book about my father and he went and interviewed Nelson Mandela and he told me afterwards that Nelson Mandela actually said: 'If it hadn't been for David Astor and the Observer, myself and Oliver Tambo would have hanged.'"

David Astor's interest in South Africa was lifelong, and he continued to fight apartheid even after stepping down as Observer editor. And his interest went far beyond journalism. He helped set up the Africa Advanced Education Project in London in 1986. As Chrissie Webb and Catherine Parker (curators of the papers of Anthony Sampson at the Bodleian Library – Sampson was an absolutely vital figure in this paper's Africa coverage) say: "David Astor received a message from Oliver Tambo asking if he could help with training for young ANC people who would be needed for positions in government after apartheid. Astor provided money (along with Rockefeller Brothers Fund and Shell)." The AAEP was essential in helping create a professional class of civil servants who could help build a post-apartheid system of governance.

David Astor's tenure as editor of the Observer has left an enormous legacy, even if we discount the role it played in saving the life of Nelson Mandela. And if we add that to his list of credits, his contribution to political, cultural and civic life in this country and elsewhere is almost unparalleled for any 20th-century journalist. Shaun Johnson is in no doubt about the contribution he – and his paper – made. "I am not sure it is understood in London, but the Observer, of all newspapers in the world, the masthead of the Observer is cherished in South Africa. Because under David's editorship it was not only the first serious newspaper in the world to take Africa seriously, it was the first newspaper in the world to take Africans seriously.

"A major figure like Oliver Tambo was taken seriously first by the Observer. And Anthony Sampson played a key role. I think that David was the first editor to cover Africa in a post-colonial manner and the Observer was that paper."

Contributor

John Mulholland

The GuardianTramp

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