20 December 2012
A special meeting of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) was convened in New York on Friday, to give Member States an opportunity to pay tribute to former president Nelson Mandela, who passed away on 5 December in South Africa aged 95.
More than 50 speakers recalled the late statesman’s journey from prisoner to president to Nobel Peace prize winner.
Passionate revolutionary, apostle of peace, champion of human rights, nation builder and beacon of freedom were among the terms of endearment bestowed on former South African President Nelson Mandela during the meeting.
Touching upon his life’s numerous milestones, delegates chronicled the 27 years he spent in prison for challenging an apartheid government, his emergence into freedom in 1990, his Nobel Peace Prize, his leadership in halting racial segregation and his rise to become the first democratically elected president of South Africa.
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, describing the services held for Mandela in South Africa last week, which had occurred under heavy rain, told delegates that the weather was almost a reminder that without rain there could be no rainbow. It was now the world’s duty to follow his lead and to follow his rainbow for the global good.
The UN chief said Mandela showed that tyranny and oppression never have the last word.
“That is the heritage of hope he bestowed on each and every one of us. That is our inheritance.
“Now it is our duty to build the better world that he showed is within our grasp. Today and every day, let us be inspired by his passion, his compassion, and his undying conviction in the human spirit and the global good.”
The world must also follow in his footsteps, General Assembly President John Ashesaid (Antigua and Barbuda) said. “Let us remember that we too must work together to reduce hunger and injustice to build lasting peace and sustainable development, to stop genocide and hunger.”
Kingsley Mamabolo, the Permanent Representative of South Africa, thanked all speakers for their kindness in paying tribute to his country’s great hero. Archbishop Desmond Tutu in a video message offered appreciation for the tribute and to Madiba for his enormous contributions to all of humanity.
Some delegates shared personal moments they had had with Mandela. David Dinkins, New York City’s first African-American Mayor, remembering Mandela’s visit to Gracie Mansion, described a man who was consistent, whether playing with Dinkins’ granddaughter or facing the media.
Historic memories were also shared. Some delegates proudly recalled their countries’ leaders hosting visits by Mandela after his release from prison. Among them, India’s speaker recalled that during his visit, Mandela had received the Bharat Ratna, his country’s highest civilian honour.
More broadly, some speakers spoke of how Mandela had deeply inspired their communities, nations and regions. Representatives of Timor-Leste and of Rwanda told the Assembly how his ideals had guided their respective countries forward on the path of reconciliation.
Some delegates, including Sri Lanka’s, recalled their countries’ boycott of South Africa’s apartheid regime. Others reported days of national mourning observed by their citizens after the former President’s death.
Nigeria’s speaker called him an icon while Mozambique’s representative called him a symbol of leadership and courage. A United States delegate called him a giant on the world stage. Brazil’s speaker said he was the greatest statesman of the 20 century.
‘The apartheid within’
“Let us join him in his humanity and try to rid ourselves from the apartheid within ourselves,” proclaimed Syria’s speaker, on behalf of the Group of Asia-Pacific States, receiving, in response, a spontaneous round of applause.
The Permanent Observer for the State of Palestine said Mandela would forever be an icon of freedom and the most vivid example in modern times of the power of forgiveness and reconciliation after brutal oppression. “President Mandela remains an embodiment of the conscience of the world,” he said.
While remembering Mandela’s triumphs, many speakers underlined the obligation all people should have in order to carry on his ideals and vision in trying to build a better and more just world.
Fiji’s speaker, on behalf of the “Group of 77” developing countries and China, said the United Nations should do everything possible to pursue the goals that Mandela had struggled so long and hard to achieve. “Whatever our handicaps, we should aspire to reach the higher ground to which he pointed us,” he said.
‘Get back to work’
Pointing out that the world would be gathering next year to shape a post-2015 development agenda, he underscored Madiba’s exhortation that overcoming poverty was not a task of charity, but one of justice.
While that task could seem enormous, he cited Madiba, who once said, “It always seems impossible, until it’s done.”
While Mandela was exceptional, he was also modest, said Switzerland’s representative. Guessing at his reaction to the words just heard during the special meeting, he said Mandela probably would have said, “I am very touched by your words. Please leave the room now and get to work.”
SAinfo reporter and United Nations