“Let your greatness blossom”: Honoring the memory of Nelson Mandela

© UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

“Sometimes it falls on a generation to be great. You can be that great generation. Let your greatness blossom,” Nelson Mandela – a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador - famously mused.

His call has special meaning, as we approach Nelson Mandela International Day (18 July), celebrated for the first time in 2010. The best way to honour his memory is to be “that great generation”, by ensuring that his values are reflected in today’s societies.

Mandela’s life is an education to us all. His triumph over apartheid changed history, and is part of humanity’s shared heritage. Arrested for anti-apartheid activism in 1962, Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment following the Rivonia Trial.

“This was a turning point in the fight for freedom against the apartheid system in South Africa and a defining moment in the global struggle for human rights and dignity,” said UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova.

The records of the Trial and the Liberation Struggle Living Archive, including his defiant dock speech, are included in UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register, dedicated to humanity’s documentary heritage.

Mandela spent 27 years on Robben Island, the worst outpost of the South African penal system for political prisoners. This site is today a UNESCO World Heritage Site, symbolizing the triumph of freedom and democracy over oppression and racism.

© Paul Weinberg

During these “ten thousand days”, Mandela was pleased to read the UNESCO Courier, which brought to him many subjects that had no place in the lexicon of apartheid: cultural diversity & humanity’s common heritage, African history, and education for sustainable development.

In 1991, he and South African President F.W. de Klerk, who ordered his release, were awarded the UNESCO Félix Houphouët-Boigny Peace Prize.

“We wish to associate ourselves and our movement with this great tide of freedom in the conviction that responsible government is a function not of wise rulers but rather of a people who are politically engaged,” declared Mandela in his acceptance speech.

Forty years after withdrawing from UNESCO, South Africa re-joined under his leadership in 1994.

Mandela’s every act embodied the idea of “everyday peace” that guides UNESCO. In 1970, UNESCO was the first organization within the UN system to establish contacts with liberation movements recognized by the organization of African Unity. UNESCO supported these movements by training teachers, and providing equipment for schools and refugee camps.

Then, as now, the Organization has stood firm in its belief that education brings hope and change. In his message for UNESCO’s Conference on the Educational needs of the Victims of Apartheid in South Africa, Mandela emphasized the need to resolve the crisis of apartheid education, as the means of creating “a solid base for the non-racial democratic South Africa which must emerge from the ashes of the discredited system of apartheid.”

“UNESCO seeks every occasion to counter injustice with knowledge, to promote historical truth through scientific publications and statements against the apartheid system” said the Director-General. “We continue to do so today because understanding what happened in the past gives the force to shape the future on grounds that respect human rights and human dignity. This is the importance of our project for the Pedagogical Use of the General History of Africa in African schools”.

Mandela’s heroic journey is an essential chapter of the history of the 20th century. It is our duty to build on his legacy, and create the better world that he showed is within our grasp.

In this spirit, on 31 October, 2014, UNESCO will launch the year-long celebrations of the Organization’s 70th anniversary with a major event dedicated to Nelson Mandela, whose work to advance peace on the basis of respect, mutual understanding and tolerance echoes the mandate of UNESCO.

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