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Statement of Gay McDougall on the occasion of Nelson Mandela’s Birthday, July 18, 2014

18 June 2014

Mandela’s Birthday – July 18th, 2014

Statement given at the General Assembly of the United Nations with the Secretary General and President of the General Assembly for a special ceremony to commemorate the birthday of Nelson Mandela.

Mr. Secretary General, President of the General Assembly, Excellencies and Colleagues.

It is a great honor for me to be here to speak on this day that the international community and the United Nations honors the legacy of Nelson Mandela. Nelson Mandela had a tremendous impact on the movement for racial justice in the United States and on me personally.

I was born into America’s version of an apartheid system of racial segregation that existed in the southern states of this country and my formative years were spent in the civil rights movement. In our quest for racial justice here, we looked for inspiration from other similar movements around the world. We found that inspiration in the struggle against apartheid and ultimately we found it in the courage demonstrated by Nelson Mandela.

Our movement for racial justice had resonance in South Africa-and the struggle to end apartheid gave us here examples of commitment and sacrifice. At nearly the same time, in 1963, as we Marched on Washington to demand equality, in South Africa, Nelson Mandela stood in a courtroom and declared that the cause of racial justice was one for which he was willing to die. As he and his co-defendants were sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben Island, the following year-1964-three civil rights workers were murdered in Mississippi for encouraging African Americans to register to vote.

Twenty years later, in the 1980s, it was the rallying cry to “release Nelson Mandela and all other political prisoners,” that re-ignited the impulse in communities across this country to fight for racial equality. I was one of the small group of activists that initiated the daily demonstrations and symbolic arrests at the South African Embassy in Washington DC that galvanized support for US sanctions against apartheid. Those demonstrations and arrests continued on a daily basis for a year and gave impetus to the Congressional over-ride of President Ronald Reagan’s veto. The rest, as they say, is history.

This past December, Nelson Mandela died a free man, and in the few years since his release from prison he helped to free his nation from apartheid and he restored the world’s faith in heroes.

I had the moving and memorable experience of attending his funeral in South Africa. As I joined with others to place a handful of dirt into his open grave, I felt really grateful for the honor and privilege of having known such a remarkable human being. He and I once shared a magical moment as I stood next to him when he voted for the first time in 1994. Sharing that moment created a bond between us that he mentioned every subsequent time that we met.

Nelson Mandela’s legacy is one that speaks to everyone around the globe who seeks justice, equality and human rights.

First, Mandela’s life teaches us about the power of personal courage and integrity. It is important, he taught us, to focus your life on matters that are larger than yourself; causes to advance social justice, equality and the common good. And, it is important that you be true to your principles even when it seems nearly impossible to do so. Sacrifices always come with commitment to principles. Courage is not the absence of fear; rather, it is the resolve to act in the face of fear.

Even when the apartheid government offered to release Nelson Mandela from prison early, he refused to make concessions to injustice. So, the speech that he gave the day he walked out of prison reaffirmed the same demands he made to the government on the day, over 27 years earlier, when he was first sentenced to jail.

Second, Nelson Mandela was a person of great humility, but at the same time he had a tremendous, almost infectious sense of self-confidence and self-esteem. These were not competing qualities. He was confident about his values and his ability to achieve justice. But he eschewed egotism and self-aggrandizement. He was quick to admit his faults and he wanted to be remembered as someone who had failings as well as triumphs.

What this says to me is that while it is critical that one’s life be guided by a moral compass, we don’t have to be perfect to be heroic. Ordinary people can do extraordinary things; the opportunity comes to each of us, often.

Third, Mandela’s life also taught us lessons about leadership and the importance of collective action. Nelson Mandela took every opportunity to make clear that his achievements were products of collective decision-making by a liberation movement that represented a popular mobilization among the South African people. His role, as he understood it, was to be one among many.

Mandela was part of a generation of South Africans who rose to the challenge of emancipating their country.  Their selflessness and readiness to serve their people, with no expectation of personal benefit, was truly inspiring. The names of many of them are recorded in the annals of South African heroes and sheroes. But the names of all too many of them will be lost to history.

The fourth point is that Mandela’s life taught us powerful lessons about forgiveness and reconciliation. The lesson was not how he failed to be angry at those who jailed him unjustly for 27 years. Because, he was indeed angry.

Rather, what was more important was that he was someone who had extraordinary vision and incredible discipline. He knew that anger could tear his country further apart; that ultimately violence produced no winners. So instead, he chose nation-building over revenge. He had a vision of what a just society entails and the commitment to an ideal which is more powerful than hatred.


Nelson Mandela has left a challenge not only for South Africans but also for each of us here as we live in the wake of his life. Will we make choices in our lives and work, and indeed in the international policies made in this great institution the General Assembly of the United Nations; will we make choices that reflect the ideals of justice and the example of courage that are his legacy to humanity?

I am proud to join you all in celebrating the life of Nelson Rolihlahla (Ro-li-la-la) Mandela.

Gay J. McDougall
Chair, Minority Rights International