MediaGlobal (New York)

South Africa: With Special Tribute, UN General Assembly Honors Life and Legacy of Nelson Mandela

UNITED NATIONS, MediaGlobal News-- With precisely two weeks since Nelson Mandela passed away on December 5 at age 95, over 50 United Nation Member State representatives and distinguished guests gathered at a special General Assembly meeting to pay tribute to the former South African President.

John Ashe, President of the General Assembly, in his opening address called Mandela "a most unusual man" who became a lasting symbol of his nation's struggle against apartheid during his 27-year incarceration. Mandela, whose Xhosa birth name Rolihlahla translates into "troublemaker," was referred to as to a global citizen who advocated peace and racial reconciliation.

"As we honor him today, let's us not forget that in the winter of 1964, in the desolation of Robben Island, Madiba was confined to a cell where he would spend 18 years, with a bucket for a toilet and forced to do hard labor in a quarry," Ashe reminded delegates, calling Mandela by his nickname. "He was allowed just one visitor a year for 30 minutes, and could write and receive just one letter every six months."

Released in 1990, Mandela went on to be joint winner of the Nobel Peace Prize three years later for his contribution to ending the system of apartheid and became the first democratically elected President of South Africa in the following year.

Speakers who paid tribute to the anti-apartheid hero included Permanent Representative of South Africa Kingsley Mamabolo, Former New York City Mayor David Dinkins, and a video message from Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu, with an opening performance by South African and African American group Thokoza.

Sir Mark Lyall Grant, Permanent Representative of the United Kingdom, drew laughs when he recalled taking part in an atypical meeting in which Mandela, Prince Charles, and the Spice Girls were in attendance, citing it as an example of the former President's capacity to be equally at ease with anyone he met.

In an interview with MediaGlobal News, Grant touched on his posting as Deputy Head of the Mission in Pretoria from 1996 to 1998, during which he shared personal interactions with Mandela on several occasions.

"I was always amazed by the sort of warmth and sincerity with which he dealt with me," says Grant.

"My memories of Mandela was of a man who very comfortable in his role--very humble, but at the same time aware of what he represented at the position he held in South Africa and in the world," explains Grant to MediaGlobal News.

Speaking to a filled Council Chamber, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon acknowledged the first President of post-apartheid South Africa as "a human being with flaws and frailties like any of us," but that from his inherent goodness came "epic greatness."

"I can understand when some say we will never see his like again. But, I see it differently," said Ban. "Because whenever people stand up for human rights, wherever people speak out for freedom and reach out for reconciliation -- there is Nelson Mandela."

"[Mandela] was very much an avuncular figure, recognizing he was someone who others felt privileged to meet and he was always willing to give his time and space to engage with them," Grant tells MediaGlobal News. "He was someone who engaged with anyone he met on a very personal one-to-one level, which was very impressive and in my 30 years of diplomacy, very unusual for someone of that stature."

Without a speech in hand, Permanent Representative of Switzerland Paul R. Seger spoke impromptu, conveying the former political prisoner as exceptional and also characteristically modest.

"What really counts now is that we take the responsibility individually and collectively not only say nice words, but take this flame Mandela put into the world, continue it and really work for a world where issues like human rights, dignity, equality, and tolerance are realities," says Seger to MediaGlobal News. "We are unfortunately living in a world where this is still far from a reality."

"The thing with commemorations is everybody comes together to make nice speeches and reunite for a short moment, [but] then we go back to everyday life," Seger explained to MediaGlobal News. "The real challenge will be to keep his memory alive not in good words, but in deeds."

Among the many speakers coming from Least Developed Countries (LDCs) citing Mandela as a source of inspiration and influence included Permanent Representative of Rwanda, Ambassador Eugène-Richard Gasana. The Ambassador spoke of how Mandela, a nation builder, was cheered on by South Africans as he was elected to the presidency the same year Rwanda emerged from a genocide that claimed over one million lives.

Mandela's refusal against taking revenge served as part of the "remarkable legacy" Rwanda strived to emulate. In 1994, military head now turned President Paul Kagame led the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) rebel forces to end the three-month genocide. In a similar fashion, Kagame directed the country toward post-genocide peace and reconciliation over retribution in the aftermath.

"We rejected the notion that vengeance was the way to rebuild our country," said Gasana. "We chose the road of forgiveness and placed reconciliation at the heart of our journey towards national recovery, unity, and progress."

Permanent Representative Abulkalam Abdul Momen of Bangladesh mourned Mandela's passing as a loss to the international community. He echoed sentiments that Mandela would remain a beacon of hope for overcoming the world's injustices.

"Nelson Mandela has taken leave of the mundane world, but his undying spirit and the gifts he offered to this nation and the world at large will continue to inspire people to be better human beings," said Permanent Representative Abulkalam Abdul Momen of Bangladesh. "May his legacy live on and may his soul rest in eternal peace."

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