Nelson Mandela in the basement studio of UN Television where I (grinning guy on the right) had just finished interviewing him. The photograph above shows Kamil Taha, the Producer of the show (on the left of the table), giving his pen to Mandela so he could autograph my copy of the speech (on side) delivered earlier in the General Assembly hall.
It was 24 September 1993 and Mandela spoke a day after Black South Africans had won a role in the government of their country for the first time in history. Since coming out of prison in 1990 he had walked a perilous path to that signal achievement, never sure that things could not be plunged into disaster with little notice. His speech at the UN for the first time spoke confidently of a multi-racial future of South Africa. He also summed up the great challenges facing Africa as a whole and called on the UN to lift all sanctions imposed on the apartheid regime. In every aspect, it is one of the most important speeches of the 20th Century, marking the turning fortunes of a continent and the moral quality of the international order. See video here.
Before signing my copy of the speech Mandela jokingly asked me if he should, like Mahatma Gandhi, charge for the signature. (Gandhi used to charge one rupee per autograph to raise money for the Harijan Fund.) I reached for my wallet but he waved it aside. “I’m not as great as Gandhi” he said. The other people in the picture are members of the African National Congress.
Mandela lived for another 20 years after that speech at the UN. At his death in 2013 the Organization lowered its flag to half-mast and tributes poured in from around the world. Undiplomatic Times remembered him in the following obituary:
With the death of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela the world has lost the last legendary figure of an epic age. In remembering his life and times, it is important to recall clearly the circumstances that propelled him to greatness and note his global significance in a period of history’s deepest depravities.
In his first speech at the UN in June 1990, newly freed from 27 years of imprisonment, Mandela himself noted from the podium of the General Assembly that apartheid was far from dead. “It will forever remain an indelible blight on human history that the apartheid crime ever occurred.
Future generations will surely enquire: What error was made that this system established itself in the aftermath of the trials at Nuremburg … in the wake of the adoption of a Universal Declaration of Human Rights?
A “racist tyranny” had established itself in South Africa precisely at the time international human rights and values were being articulated. It had “established its own brutal worth by the number of children it killed,” the number of orphans, widows, and widowers it made.
The system “still it lives on,” he reminded the world. There were still people who carried on “strange and monstrous debates” about the “means its victims [could] use to rid themselves of this intolerable scourge.” Those “who choose not to act” continued to argue “that to do nothing must be accepted as the very essence of civilized opposition to tyranny.”
He condemned the casuistry of “many amongst our White compatriots … still committed to the maintenance of the evil system.” Some were ideologically racist, others feared democratic majority rule. They were within the army and the police. Outside the agencies of the State were people “working at a feverish race to establish para-military groups whose stated aim is the physical liquidation of the ANC, its leadership and membership … We cannot afford to underestimate the threat that these defenders of a brutal and continuing reality pose to the whole process of working towards a just political settlement.”
Most people now have forgotten that brutal racist incidents punctuated the talks between Mandela and the head of the apartheid regime F.W. de Klerk. Negotiations were suspended after 41 ANC members and their families were massacred at Baipatalong in June 1994, and it took great leadership for Mandela to resume them when feelings were again at fever pitch in the wake of another mass killing at Bishu in September.
He was powered by a steely determination not to let the racists destroy the vision of a multiracial South Africa he spoke of from the dock at his April 1964 trial for sabotage.
Explaining that he had turned to violence only after the regime had banned the African National Congress (ANC) in the wake of the March 1960 Sharpeville Massacre, Mandela said that it would have been abject surrender to do anything else. “During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to the struggle of the African people,” he concluded. “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’s unique greatness lay in how he brought that ideal to life.
No one else could have engaged South Africa’s morally odious White leadership in civil and amiable discourse while directing his Black compatriots not to harp on the past, to forgo recrimination and to look to the future.
It is entirely due to him that apartheid did not collapse in a welter of blood and leave South Africans trapped in a civil war such as the one now involving India and Pakistan.
In a world all too used to the destruction of peoples at the hands of leaders without vision, Mandela’s infallible sense of proportion, equanimity and steady good will evoked universal wonder. How could a man unjustly deprived of freedom, family and every normal comfort for so long, his sight ruined by the stone quarry glare of Robbens Island prison and his sturdy strength reduced to quivering infirmities, be so without bitterness? How could he be so rich in dignity despite every effort to degrade his person?
The lessons Mandela set for his country, continent and the world were not just in opposing a system of gross injustice but in pursuing, achieving and relinquishing political power. He held and left the highest office of his land with the same effortless grace that had characterized him in misfortune and in his long walk to freedom. At all times he had an innate granite integrity, and it could be said of him as it was of Mahatma Gandhi at his death: this was a man to hold against the world, a man to match the mountains and the sea.
24 September 2018: A day before the 73rd session of the General Assembly began its openng debate a life-size statue of Nelson Mandela was unveiled in the lobby of the great hall where the leaders speak. A gift of South Africa on the occasion of Mandela's 100th birth anniversary, the statue wears the shoes in which the legendary leader made his "long walk to freedom" from the prison where the apartheid regime held him for 27 years.
Present at the unveiling were, L to R: South African president Cyril Ramaphosa, General Assembly President Maria Espinosa Garces of Ecuador and Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. Not seen in the photo but present was Graca Machel, Mandela's widow.
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Autographed text of Nelson Mandela's speech to the UN General Assembly on 24 September 1993.