Helen Clark: Nelson Mandela International Day

Jul 18, 2012

Helen Clark
Remarks to the General Assembly Informal Meeting on
Nelson Mandela International Day
United Nations, New York
Wednesday 18 July 2012, 10am


I thank the President of the General Assembly, Mr. Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser, for inviting me to address this important gathering on the occasion of Nelson Mandela International Day. I am honoured to speak alongside eminent persons who contributed in various ways to the struggle against South African apartheid and against the vicious assault on human dignity and rights which it represented.

Nelson Mandela International Day is an occasion for us all to celebrate the vision of this extraordinary man for freedom, peace, & justice; his service to humanity; and the hope for a better tomorrow which he represents to this day.

Many in my generation in my country were inspired by Nelson Mandela’s vision, and were appalled and disgusted by the apartheid system in South Africa which grossly discriminated against people on the grounds of race. Dismantling that system and building a new free and democratic South Africa is the cause to which Mr. Mandela has devoted his life.

Mr. Mandela’s courage is legendary. Who can ever forget the words of his closing statement to the South African Supreme Court on 20 April 1964 when he said: “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 Court sentenced Mr. Mandela to life imprisonment, and he served 27 years of that sentence - eighteen of them in the especially harsh conditions of Robben Island. A visit there to this day sends many chills down one’s spine.

In faraway New Zealand, the struggle for freedom in South Africa divided our small nation for many years. The major link between the two countries was rugby football, with the two national teams usually considered the best in the world.

But South Africa’s team had a fundamental flaw – it was racially selected. In New Zealand, Maori players had long been prominent at all levels of the game. Yet up to and including the All Black tour of South Africa in 1960, Maori players were left at home when the All Blacks played there.

A citizens’ movement to oppose that injustice and eventually to campaign comprehensively against apartheid was formed. I myself was actively engaged in the Halt All Racist Tours movement as a student in 1970. Involvement in this cause was one of the major motivations for my entry into politics and public life.

In 1981 when South Africa’s national rugby team, the Springboks, toured New Zealand, the country erupted in protest. In the city of Hamilton, protestors occupied the field prior to the second game of the tour, forcing its cancellation. Legend has it that when the news of this dramatic event got through to the prisoners on Robben Island, cheers could be heard in the cell block. Nelson Mandela himself has been quoted as saying that it was as if the sun had come out.

The New Zealand campaign against apartheid was part of the broad international solidarity movement which formed in support of the huge struggle taking place within South Africa itself. In the process, we in New Zealand also learned a lot about ourselves – a clear example of how the battle against injustice in one country can spur progress in another. The 1980s saw the search for truth and reconciliation in New Zealand itself gain momentum, leading to major settlements between the state and indigenous people which continue to this day, in acknowledgment of the historical injustices perpetrated from colonial times.

Just as South Africa is still on a journey, so is New Zealand. Without doubt, the campaign against apartheid sport played a crucial part in the emergence of our nation as more inclusive and independent as we freed ourselves from the legacy of the past.

Many in New Zealand argued up until and beyond the highly controversial 1981 Springbok rugby tour that sport and politics should not be mixed. Those of us opposed argued that the two were already mixed, and that a failure to make a stand against apartheid sport brought shame on our country Deep issues of human dignity, justice, and equality were at stake.

As these arguments went on over the decades, among the innumerable outrages in South Africa Nelson Mandela and many other political prisoners were kept in harsh conditions, people protesting against the pass laws were massacred at Sharpeville, many school children lost their lives and others were injured in the Soweto uprising, Steve Biko died in police custody after being brutally beaten, and countless millions of South Africans endured a daily life of oppression and hardship.

Opposing the regime was demonstrably very dangerous, with targeted assassinations and bombings also carried out against opponents inside and outside the country. The impact of that extended to two New Zealand clergymen, active in the struggle and forced into exile, who lost limbs to parcel bombs – John Osmers in Lesotho in 1979 and Michael Lapsley in Harare in 1990. I salute their courage and fortitude today too.

In so many ways, the inspiration and spirit of solidarity generated by Nelson Mandela and the movement he led has never been limited by national boundaries. That meant that the day Mr. Mandela was freed from gaol was of huge significance to the lives of all in South Africa and around the world who had supported the long walk to freedom. To see Mr. Mandela emerge from those years of incarceration without bitterness and to lead his country to reconciliation was truly inspirational. Mr. Mandela said during his visit to New Zealand in 1995 that in his long life he had learned to forgive, but never to forget. There is much wisdom in those words.

Indeed it is such attributes of leadership, vision, wisdom and inspiration which led the United Nations General Assembly three years ago to establish this International Day in Mr. Mandela’s honour, and it is wonderful to see it celebrated by growing numbers of people. Nelson Mandela’s words and deeds to this day constitute a global call to action to us all to join together to advance human dignity and fight injustice. That too will be the enduring legacy of this great man who has dedicated his life to the cause of a better life for others.

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