Happy birthday Nelson Mandela!

Maggie Paterson is Editor of Amnesty Magazine. She was involved in the Anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa and here celebrates Mandela's birthday by reflecting on the vital role he played in the struggle. 

Today is Nelson Mandela’s 95th birthday. It is also the United Nations Nelson Mandela International Day. Now, as the frail old freedom fighter is in hospital in South Africa, this UN day comes to our attention with a special poignancy.

The idea of the day is simple. Give 67 minutes of your time to do something for someone else. As a direct tribute to a revered world icon, each minute represents one year of Mandela’s 67 years of public life.

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 many, many people do, 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. But it showed how much the struggle meant to so many people. 

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 long anti-apartheid struggle will recall the high and low moments and reflect on what they meant then and now. Mandela is an icon, yes, and a worthy one.

At the Rivonia Trial in 1964 he and eight comrades went to prison – narrowly escaping the death penalty - for what they believed. 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 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 achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.’

The message grew

During his 27 years in jail Mandela was joined by thousands of others. The mass struggle in South Africa ebbed, flowed before swelling to become 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.

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, as he also said, either in South Africa, or anywhere in the world.

The struggle against racism and inequality began in South Africa in the earliest days of colonialism. In the fight against formal apartheid, the 1955 Freedom Charter was drawn up after wide popular consultation. It expressed what ordinary people wanted for their world to be a better place.

Decades later, in 1996, these were enshrined in South Africa’s historic constitution. 

Making the dream a reality

Much of this has not yet been achieved – but much has. And it is fair to ask, where in the world have true democracy and human rights been achieved? But the important thing is that we believe these ideals can be achieved.

And 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.’

About Amnesty UK Blogs
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.
View latest posts