The United Nations Thursday marked Nelson Mandela International Day, celebrating the South African leader’s 95th birthday and honouring his dedication to public service, social justice and reconciliation, inspiring millions around the world.
To commemorate the Day, the U.N. joined a call by the Nelson Mandela Foundation to “Take Action, Inspire Change” to volunteer 67 minutes to helping others by volunteering in a hospital, tutoring a child, providing food for the homeless, or any other community service.
The “67-minutes” campaign is based on people devoting one minute of their time for every year that Mandela devoted to public service, as a human rights lawyer, a prisoner of conscience, an international peacemaker and the first democratically-elected President of post-apartheid South Africa.
This year, U.N. staff in New York will volunteer their time to help rebuild homes destroyed by Hurricane Sandy last fall.
Also at Headquarters in New York, the General Assembly held a special meeting to mark the Day. Speakers will include former United States President Bill Clinton, Reverend Jesse Jackson, singer, actor and social activist Harry Belafonte, and Andrew Mlangeni, a close friend of Mandela who was imprisoned with him.
“This year’s commemoration of Nelson Mandela International Day comes at a moment of deep reflection on the life and work of Madiba, as the universally revered leader remains in the hospital,” said Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in his message for the Day.
“As we extend our best wishes to President Mandela on his 95th birthday, let us also give tangible meaning to our feelings of concern by taking action on behalf of others.”
“The heart of Nelson Mandela International Day is good works for people and the planet. Its theme … is meant to mobilize the human family to do more to build a peaceful, sustainable and equitable world,” Ban said. “This is the best tribute we can pay to an extraordinary man who embodies the highest values of humanity.”
Ban added that at this difficult time, his thoughts and prayers are with Mandela, his family and all the people of South Africa.
“We are united in concern,” Ban said at the special General Assembly meeting. “We are also joined in admiration for a towering figure in the world-wide fight for equality and justice, a model of compassion and integrity, a man who took on and then gracefully relinquished the responsibility of power.”
He said that Mandela gave 67 years of his life to the struggle for human rights and in that spirit, “today and every day, we want to mobilize the human family to take action, inspire change, and build a more peaceful, sustainable and equitable world.”
While United Nations staff in New York are helping to rebuild homes destroyed by Hurricane Sandy, elsewhere around the world, UN staff are engaging in various volunteer activities: preparing meals for the elderly, helping out in orphanages, cleaning up parks and organizing computer literacy workshops.
Clinton recalled his friendship with Mandela, saying that “his heart was so big, and his humanity so great, that we often had trouble keeping our official roles apart from our personal friendship. This speaks well of him.”
He praised Mandela’s efforts to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS in South Africa years after he left office, saying he also encouraged Clinton to help him renegotiate the prices the country pays for AIDS medicines, saving millions of dollars each year that could be invested in the country’s development.
Reverend Jackson praised Mandela’s commitment to achieving reconciliation and his emphasis on forgiveness and tolerance, as well as his determination to not give up and continue fighting for social justice.
“Social transformation is an intentional act” he said. “It is because of Mr. Mandela’s sacrifice that South Africa is free today.” He added that Mr. Mandela’s struggle should not be in vain, and called on the international community to keep his legacy alive.
Speaking exclusively to the U.N. News Centre Thursday, Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Afghanistan, Nicholas “Fink” Haysom, who served as chief legal adviser throughout Mandela’s presidency, said Mandela’s work is an inspiration for countries across the world.
“As Afghanistan prepares for its historic presidential election next year, I hope the acts and words of Madiba can be of some inspiration to people here, that they realize from South Africa’s experience just how important it is for leaders and potential leaders — at whatever level, whether it be at the national or the village level — to be bigger than the divisions that can tear communities apart,” he said in an interview.
Haysom added that the widespread concern for his recovery is “a reminder that Madiba holds a special place in the hearts and minds of people all over the world.”