Statement by Laura G. Ross, Senior Advisor to the Permanent Representative of the United States to the Sixty-fourth Session of the General Assembly, in the Third Committee on Agenda Item 49: the Adoption of Nelson Mandela International Day

Laura G. Ross
Senior Advisor to the Permanent Representative of the United States 
New York, NY
November 10, 2009


Mr. Chairman, the United States is proud to be among the co-sponsors of the resolution creating Nelson Mandela International Day.   It’s particularly fitting that we consider a day to honor this great man as part of our discussion about the culture of peace.

Nelson Mandela faced a regime of deep cruelty.  The government of South Africa in the days of apartheid was not content to reign as autocrats. They created institutions with the semblance of democracy to cloak the most iron control; they warped science and faith  to justify the most basic bigotry; they enshrined discrimination and called it law. And from the sprawling townships to the city where the oceans meet and the clouds nestle on a mountaintop, to the mines dug deep to plunder a nation’s gold, to the haunting veldt of the beloved country, the dream of democracy was denied.

Mandela saw a great evil and dedicated himself to bringing it down. In the long years spent jailed off the coast of Cape Town, he continued to cherish “the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities.” This was the ideal that he lived for  and the ideal for which he was prepared to die.

A few months after Mandela’s arrival at the prison on Robben Island, his lawyer visited him there, only to have his client march forth to meet him surrounded by a phalanx of uniformed guards. With exquisite politeness, Mandela introduced his lawyer to his so-called “guard of honor.” Mandela had already chosen to live in prison as if he were a free man. He demanded to be treated with dignity—and he thereby reminded his foes of the common humanity shared even between victim and oppressor. What Mandela did for his immediate captors he would also do for those who had made his country a prison. Over time, Mandela persuaded his jailors to surrender the key.
The years of confinement would surely have driven most of us to despair and bitterness. But those years on Robben Island were the time he used to prepare, to sharpen his powers of persuasion and to plan his course.
Apartheid was conceived in deceit and violence, but it ended in truth and reconciliation. Mandela used his moral power for moral purpose. He turned enemies into partners, fear into trust, hatred into forgiveness, discrimination into democracy. And when Mandela walked free out of prison, he strode forth with smile flashing, back straight, shoulders unbowed. 

There was no easy road to freedom for South Africa. Nor was the road easy for its great emancipator. Mandela paid a high price over his long life: decades lost, personal happiness sacrificed, a son lost to a disease whose stigma Mandela was determined to end.

South Africa became the rainbow nation of which Mandela had dreamed—its flag today a tapestry of interwoven colors. It still faces great challenges, some new and some old, from the fight against HIV/AIDS that Mandela championed to the struggle for deep, broad, and lasting prosperity. But South Africa faces them with the great power of democratic rule and the great resources of its liberated citizens. The Republic of South Africa is finally a republic.

My own nation was founded on the belief that all people are created equal. And my own nation still works to make real the full promise of its founding. We see a hero and a kindred spirit in Mandela—a breaker of shackles, a bringer of forgiveness, a creator of hope. He knew that just and decent government requires the power of the mind but that reconciliation is a matter of the heart.

So let me conclude by saying, in the words of the great anthem, Nkosi sikeleli Afrika—God bless Africa. God bless our work together to build a world of justice, peace, and human dignity—to make real the ideals to which Nelson Mandela dedicated his extraordinary life.  Madiba, we thank you.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.


PRN: 2009/264