(Vatican Radio) Each year, on 18th July, we mark “Nelson Mandela International Day” in recognition of the former South African President’s contribution to the culture of peace and freedom.
For 67 years Nelson Mandela devoted his life to the service of humanity - as a human rights lawyer, a prisoner of conscience, an international peacemaker and the first democratically elected president of a free South Africa.
The Day, which falls on Mandela’s birthday, was declared by the UN Assembly. It invites individuals to honor his leadership and his commitment to promoting social justice by taking action and make a difference in their communities.
Linda Bordoni asked the South African Ambassador to the Holy See, George Johannes, who spent years as a political activist and in exile as a militant of the outlawed African National Congress before becoming part of the nation’s first democratically elected Government, to share some of his memories of Nelson Mandela, the man:
“I think - the Ambassador said regarding the meaning of a day such as this - it’s a great recognition of the status of the person and of the impact that he had.”
And looking up to him as to someone with the moral authority and power to inspire and bring about change as we do with people like Saint John Paul II, Mother Teresa and Archbishop Romero, he said Mandela is certainly someone “who has been recognized internationally, and that is why the Day has been set aside as a special day.”
Ambassador Johannes goes on to speak of the legacy of the man we affectionately refer to as ‘Madiba’ saying it is a legacy that touched, and continues to touch, many people, of all ages, races and religions across the world.
The Ambassador, who was a political activist with the African National Congress and then worked in the government of President Mandela, meeting with him on many occasions, recalls at length the struggles, from the 1950s on, the evolution, the imprisonment and the remarkable moral stature, charism and leadership of a man who – almost miraculously – avoided bloodshed and ruin and united all South Africans under the banner and the vision of a new South Africa: the Rainbow Nation.
He also speaks of Mandela’s personality describing him as a very disciplined person who never cow-towed to anybody: “he got up very early, he meditated, he exercised and he wrote and he did hard labor in the quarries of Robben Island. At the same time he was ‘the leader’ while being subjected to the deprivation of freedom, humiliation, physical suffering and personal tragedy.”
“I believe he did all the right things, like when he came into power he created a Government of National Unity, and his understanding was that everyone had a right to have their view heard” he said.
The Ambassador also says that in his view the way to honor Nelson Mandela’s legacy is to “remember what he did and ask ourselves ‘what can we take out of all of that?’”.
That’s why, he said, in South Africa the 18th of July is a Day of Action which invites everyone to do something for the nation.
People, he said, take food to the poor, spend time with the aged or do anything that is useful and uplifting for the community.
The Ambassador points out that next year – 2018 – marks 100 years since Mandela’s birth and he foresees special celebrations for that occasion.
He concludes looking ahead to 2018 when plans to organize an important celebration of this day here at the Vatican, with lectures and interventions from Vatican and political authorities, but also with singing and dancing “the Madiba way” as Nelson Mandela himself would have liked to do!