Fighting poverty: Mandela way | Sunday Observer

Fighting poverty: Mandela way

Former South African President, Nelson Mandela
Former South African President, Nelson Mandela

The late Nelson Mandela (died December 5, 2013) was one of the most respected statesmen in the world. Perhaps, only Mahatma Gandhi can be mentioned in the same breath. Having been imprisoned for 27 long years for fighting the apartheid regime, Mandela became President of South Africa (and a world leader) when that cruel regime ended with the rainbow revolution.

Every year on July 18 the day Nelson Mandela was born in 1918 - the UN asks individuals around the world to mark Nelson Mandela International Day by making a difference in their communities. Everyone has the ability and the responsibility to change the world for the better, and Mandela Day is an occasion for everyone to take action and inspire change. On the cusp of his 100th birth anniversary, there are many things that the world can do to honour his work and legacy.

For 67 years, Nelson Mandela devoted his life to the service of humanity as a human rights lawyer, a prisoner of conscience, an international peacemaker and the first democratically elected president of a free South Africa. How he brought a fractured nation together is told eloquently in the movie Invictus, which is about South Africa’s triumphant return to world rugby.

The Nelson Mandela Foundation is dedicating this year’s Mandela Day to taking Action Against Poverty, honouring Nelson Mandela’s leadership and devotion to fighting poverty and promoting social justice for all. Poverty is at the root of malnutrition, stunting, poor educational outcomes, the skills deficit and unemployment, disease, the loss of dignity, and even anger and violence.


“We need to restore and reaffirm the dignity of the people of Africa and the developing world. We need to place the eradication of poverty at the top of world priorities. We need to know with a fresh conviction that we all share a common humanity and that our diversity in the world is the strength for our future together,” Mandela once said.

In November 2009, the UN General Assembly declared July 18 “Nelson Mandela International Day” in recognition of the former South African President’s contribution to the culture of peace and freedom. This was an exceptional instance because he received this rare honour when he was still alive.

This General Assembly resolution recognizes Nelson Mandela’s values and his dedication to the service of humanity, in the fields of conflict resolution, race relations, the promotion and protection of human rights, reconciliation, gender equality and the rights of children and other vulnerable groups, as well as the fight against poverty and the promotion of social justice. It acknowledges his contribution to the struggle for democracy internationally and the promotion of a culture of peace throughout the world.

In December 2015, the General Assembly decided to extend the scope of Nelson Mandela International Day, also to be utilized to promote humane conditions of imprisonment, to raise awareness about prisoners being a continuous part of society and to value the work of prison staff as a social service of particular importance. After all, Mandela himself was a victim who spent 27 long years in the Robben Island prison off the South African mainland and this addition is very appropriate.

The General Assembly resolution not only adopted the revised United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, but also approved that they should be known as the “Nelson Mandela Rules” in order to honour the legacy of the late President of South Africa. These are now practised worldwide by prison authorities. Pressure has also been brought on to prevent Governments from imprisoning their opponents on false or fabricated charges, which is aimed at defaming and degrading the individuals concerned.

Mandela conducted a lifelong campaign against poverty. He knew that once apartheid ended, education and economic development should be accelerated. He also knew that reconciliation was vital. He harboured no grudge against the very people who sent him to prison and the community they represented. He was black. His tormentors and opponents were white. Today, the South African national anthem is sung in several languages including Afrikaans. He later won the Nobel Peace Prize for his endeavour to free South Africa from the yoke of apartheid and his services to humanity in general.

Sri Lanka too can derive inspiration from the processes he initiated after coming to power to bring the Rainbow Nation together. Granted, the conflict in Sri Lanka and apartheid in South Africa were quite different, but there are parallels that can be drawn as well. After all, it is a question of ending years of mistrust and bringing divided communities together. In Mandela’s own words “it is easy to break down and destroy - the heroes are those who make peace and build”.

Mandela showed that man-made barriers can easily be broken. Skin colour is a matter of chemistry - whites are not superior to blacks or vice versa. Those who speak language X are not superior to those who speak language Y. These are just artificial barriers that we have adapted over the years which have fundamentally no scientific or social meaning at all.

We have to help each other without thinking of petty differences. Helping someone to come out of poverty is a noble act. Rich countries too should help their developing counterparts to achieve economic and social prosperity. Again, we can take a cue from Madiba, as most South Africans affectionately called him. Mandela also introduced numerous social and economic programs designed to improve the living standards of South Africa’s black population, without neglecting the needs of the white population.


Fighting poverty also means fighting disease. After leaving office, Nelson Mandela remained a devoted champion for peace and social justice in his own country and around the world. He established a number of organizations, including the influential Nelson Mandela Foundation and The Elders, an independent group of public figures committed to addressing global problems and easing human suffering. In 2002, Mandela became a vocal advocate of AIDS awareness and treatment programs in a culture where the epidemic had been cloaked in stigma and ignorance. The disease later claimed the life of his son Makgatho and is believed to affect more people in South Africa than in any other country.

No one can perhaps equal Mandela, but there is a little bit of Mandela in all of us. We fail to see that in a highly commercialized world where the pursuit of money takes priority. But, as Mandela proved, there is much more to life than money and there is no bigger source of inspiration for this quest than Mandela himself. Mandela practised three rules which can help everyone to emerge out of poverty and also help those in need. He urged all of us to 1) free yourself 2) free others and 3) serve every day. These are three very simple steps that everyone can do. If you follow these steps, every day will be a Mandela Day. 


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