Take a few minutes to remember Mandela


Have you got a minute? Or 67 minutes to be precise? Put them to good use because today is a special day.

It is Nelson Mandela International Day, now in the official UN calendar. It marks his birthday – and makes a call to action to people all over the world. The idea is simple – give 67 minutes of your time to do something for others. As a tribute to Mandela, who died aged 95 last December, each minute represents one year of his 67 years of public life.

Unanimously supported by all UN member states, the objective is to inspire individuals to take action to help change the world for the better - in celebration of Nelson Mandela’s life and legacy.

Today Glasgow has made the day into a major event. The city has a proud anti-apartheid history – Glasgow led the world in giving Mandela, then in prison, the freedom of their city. In the run-up to the Commonwealth Games, Glasgow’s Mandela Day programme includes official ceremonies, flash choirs, and a free concert starring Hugh Masekela. Edinburgh’s Jazz Festival opens with Abdullah Ibrahim to celebrate Mandela – and across Scotland there’s a mass ‘book gifting’ for children’s libraries in South Africa. Check it all out on the Mandela Day Scotland website and on Action for Southern Africa.

Fighting apartheid

The struggle against apartheid touched millions of people all over the world. In the UK for example, hundreds of thousands of people from all walks of life, colour, creed, political persuasion, took a stand against racism, personally and through trade unions, churches, civil and human rights groups, local authorities, and grassroots organisations.

For them, racism and oppression were epitomised by South Africa’s cruel, legalised system of injustice and inequality, declared by the UN to be a crime against humanity.

'A moment of extraordinary hope'

I vividly remember, as do many people, the day Nelson Mandela was released. A moment of extraordinary hope and joy.

When he first came to Britain, everywhere he went complete strangers would spontaneously burst into tears on meeting him – a strange welcome for this man whose image had not been seen by the world outside his prison for 27 years.

From the start, Mandela and his colleagues made it clear they were looking to build on what had been achieved in the ‘struggle years’. He met everyone he could – from prime minister Margaret Thatcher, hardly an anti-apartheid activist, to the parents of murdered black student Stephen Lawrence.

A worthy icon

Many who supported the anti-apartheid struggle will recall the high and low moments and reflect on what they meant then and now.

At the Rivonia Trial in 1964 Mandela and seven comrades went to prison for what they believed – narrowly escaping the death penalty. This trial is recognised as a defining moment in the global struggle for human rights and dignity. Mandela spelled out the message in his historic four-hour statement from the dock which ended:

‘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 see realised. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.’

If you want to know about this historic trial, I urge you to read Joel Joffe’s gripping book The State versus Nelson Mandela: The trial that changed South Africa (Oneworld 2007). Lord Joffe was the attorney in charge of the Rivonia Trial defence team. Here’s how he described the start of Mandela’s statement:

‘Standing in the dock he began very slowly, very quietly, reading that statement which he had prepared, in a flat even voice. At no point did he raise his voice very much, or change from the slow, measured speech with which he had started. His voice carried clearly across the court. Gradually as he spoke the silence became more and more profound, till it seemed that no-one in the court dared move or breathe.‘

The message grew

During his 27 years in jail Mandela was joined by thousands of others. The mass struggle in South Africa ebbed and flowed in the face of vicious repression, then swelled into an avalanche.

The international solidarity campaign, from small beginnings, grew into a mass movement pressuring governments all over the world that directly or tacitly supported apartheid power. Recently launched is a wonderful online archive about the Anti-Apartheid Movement in the UK. It’s packed with pictures and testimonies from activists, including footage from the famous Mandela tribute concerts.

Mandela said:

‘We shall never forget how millions of people around the world joined us in solidarity to fight the injustice of our oppression while we were incarcerated.’ 

This is really what change is all about. So much is rightly attributed to Mandela, but nothing he did was done alone – as he himself often said. And the struggle is never over, either in South Africa, or anywhere in the world.

Perhaps with 67 minutes we can each remind ourselves that anything is possible. As Mandela says:

‘To be free it is not merely to cast off our chains, it is to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.’

Maggie Paterson is Editor of Amnesty Magazine. She joined the British Anti-Apartheid Movement after leaving South Africa. Today is a special day – and one that reminds us that we can all do something to make the world a better place – even if we don’t get to be a 20th century icon.

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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