Excellencies, friends, colleagues,
We are about to watch a film about a time when the people of the world united in favour of equality, dignity, forgiveness and joy.
Thousands of kilometres away from South Africa – where apartheid, a system of institutionalized racial segregation, was generating brutality and humiliation on a massive scale – women, men and children who were in no way directly connected to that situation began protesting. Ordinary families from all over the world boycotted goods produced under apartheid. And as that boycott heightened, a number of musicians staged the biggest concerts the world had ever seen to protest apartheid and demand the liberation of Nelson Mandela.
As Mandela said, those people “chose to care”. And to us in South Africa, that was exhilarating and deeply moving – to think that the injustice, fear and violence that we daily suffered mattered to so many people, so far away.
The apartheid government resisted international scrutiny. It brandished the slogan, “Do not interfere in our internal affairs”. This is a slogan that I, as High Commissioner, and the Human Rights Council have often encountered, as governments warn us not to intrude in the internal affairs of sovereign states with our human rights concerns.
But the apartheid regime could not intimidate the people of the world, or the organisation of the United Nations. They persisted in their fight for equality and dignity. And apartheid was vanquished. After he was freed, Mandela traveled to New York to, as he said, “salute the United Nations and its Member States, both singly and collectively,for joining forces with the masses of our people, in a common struggle that has brought about our emancipation and pushed back the frontiers of racism.”
In following years, through sheer force of example, Mandela led South Africa away from the very brink of bloodshed and vengeance. He invited his own oppressors to join in his government. He taught us that bigotry and discrimination are never justified, on any grounds – not even tit for tat. He never sold out, he never caved in, and despite everything he endured, he never seemed to develop bitterness, cruelty or rancour. He showed us that we cannot ever be truly free at the expense of others’ freedoms.
You’ve heard people talk about the law of force and the force of law. There is also the power of inclusion, the strength of empathy, the deep pull of justice and the magnetism of forgiveness and love. When Nelson Mandela created reconciliation in South Africa – a country scarred by generations of terrible injustice – love triumphed over fear and hatred, and empathy and inclusion triumphed over domination and greed.
Today is Mandela day. All of us are asked to devote 67 minutes to the service of others – to activities that promote social justice and human rights, or which help vulnerable people – in order to honour Mandela’s 67 years of struggle for freedom and justice.
All of us have, within us, a Nelson Mandela. Someone who desires to change the world. Someone who is strong enough and committed enough to effect real change. Someone who yearns to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.
I believe that not only are all human beings born free and equal in dignity and rights – we are also endowed with a sense of what is universally just.
Nelson Mandela’s life was a model of what one person can achieve with strength of character and force of commitment. His capacity for forgiveness inspired countless others to work for reconciliation. His leadership transformed the institutions of the South African state and saved the country from civil war. On an even larger scale, it galvanized people all over the world to work for racial and gender equality, conflict resolution, and greater justice.
Many challenges remain before we overcome discrimination and other violations of human rights. But the values that Nelson Mandela incarnated – reconciliation, fairness, equality and dignity – remain vivid. Today, by inspiring people everywhere to take action for social justice, we seek to build a global movement for human rights. All human rights, for all people, everywhere.
Remember, Mandela told us, “It always seems impossible, until it’s done”.