By Linda Bordoni
On 18 July we celebrate Nelson Mandela Day. The occasion was instituted by the United Nations to honour Mandela’s incredible witness and precious contribution to peace and freedom. 2018 also marks 100 years from Madiba’s birth.
The date, July 18, was chosen to fall on Mandela’s birthday. It is an occasion for all to remember and to pay tribute to an extraordinary man who turned his dream to contribute to the freedom struggle of his people into reality, becoming an international icon for justice, peace and equality. A man, who singlehandedly showed the world that the power of forgiveness is stronger than that of revenge, and that the road to reconciliation is the only road to tread in the building of peace and development.
As the Nelson Mandela Foundation invites us to do, Mandela Day calls on us, every day, to make the world a better place, it’s an occasion to look back on what has been done, and to look forward to what will be done.
By celebrating Madiba’s life and legacy in a sustainable way, it is an invitation to “take action, inspire change, make every day a Mandela day!
The South African Ambassador to the Holy See, George Johannes, has held many prestigious roles, including positions of authority within the government of Nelson Mandela – South Africa’s first democratically elected President.
He spoke to Linda Bordoni about his own memories of the man and the statesman, and about a legacy that we are called to uphold:
“There is something that we call the Madiba or the Mandela effect, and this is having international repercussions because the legacy that he left for world, was to see that no matter how desperate and difficult a situation is, if there is a determination and a will you can actually sit down and come to a solution, it might not be the ideal solution, but it will be a solution to assist the process to give a better result”.
The Ambassador notes that this approach can be applied to can apply to one’s personal lives and to international issues: where there is a crisis “we can use the Mandela experience to say that there is a lot that we can learn from the approach that he had politically and philosophically”.
Ambassador Johannes, who joined the outlawed African National Congress in the years of Apartheid and was forced into exile during which he worked a full-time political activist and as a journalist with Radio Freedom in Angola, also shared some personal memories of Mandela, the man:
“I remember sitting with him at the back of the car and I said to him ‘can I see your hands?’ and when I felt the hands, they were as hard as a rock even although he was already President. They were still hard because of the years of working in the quarry on Robben Island” he said.
He said that Mandela taught him many things and recalled his constant admonition to never forget one’s core mission.
“He told me: If you are going to be a politician you need to be very disciplined and always keep the people in your heart. You must never forget where you come from, you must never forget you are in a privileged position, and the people aren’t, so you work for the interests of the people.”
The Ambassador also said that what stood out always was Mandela’s deep commitment to put his country on the road to justice and equality.
“He was probably one of the first people who said “halve my salary and give it to the poor”, and the things he established for children, the plight of women, the plight of the elderly and those on the receiving edge of society, he took them in. And I think that if he had been a Catholic he would have been made a saint by now – he had all the characteristics of a very spiritual person…”
George Johannes also pointed out that for South Africans, 2018 marks the Nelson Mandela Centenary and that the Embassy to the Holy See has many programmes and initiatives he hopes to be able to launch.
Born in South Africa on 18 July 1918, Nelson Rolihalhla Mandela joined the African National Congress in 1944 and engaged in resistance against the ruling National Party’s apartheid policies after 1948.
He was brought to trial with fellow ANC leaders for plotting to overthrow the government by violence during the Rivonia Trial, and was sentenced to life imprisonment. During his 27 years in prison, Mandela’s reputation grew in South Africa and across the world. He became a powerful symbol of resistance as the anti-apartheid movement gathered strength and he consistently refused to compromise his political position to obtain his freedom.
Nelson Mandela was released on 11 February 1990, he became the first President of a democratic South Africa, was awarded the Nobel Prize for peace, but never ceased striving to attain the goals of justice and equality he had set out almost four decades earlier.
On 5 December 2013 “Madiba”, the Father of the Nation passed away aged 95. He was laid to rest in the village of Qunu in his beloved Transkei region.