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Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela

“We have together, walked a very long road. We have travelled together to reach a common destination. The common destination towards which we have been advancing defines the very reason for the existence of this world organization. The goal we have sought to reach is the consummation of the yearning of all humankind for human dignity and human fulfillment.” Nelson Mandela, addressing the United Nations General Assembly in September 1993.

Nelson Mandela, who died at the age of 95, spent 27 years in prison in South Africa, convicted and sentenced along with seven others to life imprisonment. He rejected offers of early release because they always came with conditions attached. In 1990, when he finally walked through the gates of Pollsmoor Prison a free man, the BBC described dancing in the streets across the country and reported a crowd of 50,000 had gathered in front of the City Hall in Cape Town to hear him speak.

A fellow South African, also brought up in the apartheid era, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay recalls that time: “When he came out, feelings were boiling over, full of hatred, discrimination, desire for revenge but he turned all that around with simple words that people understood. Throw your spears and guns into the sea, never again will we have racism in this country, he said. There was no vengeance – human rights for all, all fundamental freedoms to be respected. That was his message.” 

At 71, Mandela’s age when he was freed, he remained undeterred in his determination to end the system of apartheid. “I greet you all in the name of peace, democracy and freedom for all,” Mandela said in his speech to supporters. He thanked all those who had campaigned for his release both inside and outside of South Africa and placed “the remaining years of my life in your hands.”

An extraordinary life

His was an extraordinary life. Born in 1918 in a small village in the eastern Cape of South Africa, Rolihlahla Dalibhunga - Mandela his English name given to him by a teacher - studied law at the Afrikaner Witswaterand University, joined the African National Congress (ANC) and very early on began advocating for political and social reform.

In 1952, he set up a legal practice with Oliver Tambo, the man who went on to lead the ANC and together they agitated for change. As relations between the regime’s white supremacists and the black majority worsened, the measures used to enforce apartheid became more draconian.

The ANC was outlawed in 1960, following the shooting of more than 60 people protesting the nation’s pass laws outside the Sharpeville police station. The pass laws effectively prevented inter-mingling of blacks and whites and severely restricted the movement of non-whites.

The Sharpeville massacre as it came to be known was a critical moment in the struggle against apartheid, marking the end of peaceful resistance with the ANC leadership deciding to resort to ‘sabotage’ to achieve change.

Mandela was arrested in 1962 and sentenced to five years in prison for leaving the country illegally and inciting workers to strike. In 1963, however, the Government brought further charges against him, which carried a possible death penalty: sabotage, high treason and conspiracy to overthrow the government.

His speech from the dock at the opening of his trial in 1964 is one of his most famous. Describing what the ANC was fighting for as “a struggle for the right to live”, Mandela then defined his role: “During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. 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.”

Mandela was sentenced to life in prison, however, although unable to be seen or heard, the ANC focused its campaign against apartheid on him and demands for his release. The international community responded, imposing sanctions against the South African regime, which eventually succumbed to the pressure. Mandela was freed by President FW de Klerk who removed the ban on the ANC and began the process of creating a multi-racial democracy.

Mandela was subsequently awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and in 1994 became South Africa’s first black president.

As President, he upheld the ideals and principles which he proclaimed during his trial and imprisonment and continued to build bridges across the racial divide. He anchored the struggle against apartheid on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and dedicated the freedom once achieved to the implementation of the Declaration.

Mandela supervised the transformation of South Africa from an apartheid state that served minority interests to one that served the needs of all citizens without discrimination and began the gradual process of building a truly rainbow nation. He recognized the critical importance of an independent judiciary as a bulwark for democracy and underlined that the future of South African democracy hinged on the newly created Constitutional Court. 

Pillay recalls that Mandela actively promoted women’s rights. The first Speaker of the multi-racial Parliament was a woman. Pillay herself was singled out by Mandela and was appointed by him as the first non-white woman to the South African High Court. The High Commissioner says it gives her great joy to remember this and to think of Mandela as a person who promoted women’s rights. “You have to understand that at the time there was huge resistance to appointments of this kind with many people saying that black people were not ready for these responsibilities,” she says.

In 2009 the United Nations took the unprecedented step of designating an International Day to celebrate Nelson Mandela’s achievements and global stature. The resolution, agreeing the Day, on 18 July, Mandela’s birthday, recognizes his outstanding contribution to the creation of a non-racial, non-sexist, democratic South Africa. It speaks of his values and his dedication to the service of humanity and describes his contribution to the struggle for democracy internationally and the promotion of a culture of peace throughout the world.

“The best way we can honour him for being such an inspiration to us all, is by applying his values, and striving to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others,” Pillay says.

6 December 2013

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