“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

“I knew as well as I knew anything that the oppressor must be liberated just as surely as the oppressed . . . I am not truly free if I am taking away someone else’s freedom, just as surely as I am not free when my freedom is taken from me . . . When I walked out of prison, that was my mission, to liberate the oppressed and the oppressor both.”

– Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela, 1995.

Mandela led South Africa to transit from a racially divided society to a democratic nation through peace and reconciliation. He is an iconic figure of international human rights movement. In 2009, the United Nations declared July 18 as Nelson Mandela Day in honor of his birthday to recognize his contribution, and it was first celebrated on his 92nd birthday in 2010.

Nelson Mandela Day was established to remind of Mandela’s values, including his commitment to social justice, reconciliation, and human rights, and to encourage people around the world to make a positive difference in their communities. This day aims to inspire individuals to embrace the values that Mandela stood for, such as democracy, equality, reconciliation, and diversity.

Life of Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela was a prominent anti-apartheid activist and South Africa’s first black president. He studied law at the University of the Witwatersrand. During his college years, Mandela witnessed the harsh realities of racial discrimination against blacks, and started to combat this injustice. After graduating, he set a law firm and worked as a lawyer in Johannesburg. He dedicated himself to fighting against racial discrimination and advocating for equality and justice.

Racial discrimination had persisted in the Republic of South Africa for approximately 350 years since the 17th century. Even after the abolition of slavery, the white minority who had previously held the black majority in slavery, continued to wield social power and enacted laws to restrict the rights of nonwhite citizens. In order to consolidate the white supremacy, they implemented “apartheid,” a racial segregation from 1948 until 1994. This policy prohibited interracial marriage, imposed restrictions on residential areas and public facilities, based on the race. Additionally, the colored were not even allowed to vote.

According to this policy, the black majority who make up 80% of the population were forcibly relocated to barren and extremely small remote areas, corresponding to only 13% of the country’s land. They had to live a poor life, and were also deprived of their South African citizenship. Without proper education, they had no choice but to depend on day labor, prostitution, and gambling for a living.

Motivated by Mahatma Gandhi’s nonviolent movement, Mandela tried to fight against apartheid in a peaceful way. However, an incident broke out in March 1960. The police fired on a large crowd in the township of Sharpville located in the northern part of Johannesburg. As a result, 69 people were killed, and hundreds were injured. Mandela defined this as a massacre of blacks and decided to embark on an armed struggle. Since then, Mandela formed a military group and worked for anti-apartheid movement. However, he was arrested and was sentenced to life imprisonment.

Despite the brutal incarceration, Mandela tirelessly worked for the human rights movement by communicating with the world. His efforts were recognized with several prestigious awards: the Jawaharlal Nehru Award in 1979, the Bruno Kreisky Prize in 1981, and the International Simón Bolívar Prize from UNESCO in 1983. He became an iconic figure of peace and reconciliation not only in his country but all over the world.

The international community was alarmed by the racial discrimination in South Africa and took action by putting pressure on the South African government through economic and cultural boycotts. Amidst this situation, tensions between blacks and whites as well as the government and anti-apartheid organizations escalated to an unprecedented level, resulting in thousands of fatalities during their violent clashes.

Despite the international pressure and fierce resistance from anti-apartheid groups, the South African government had clung to racism for decades. However, as social changes and economic sanctions intensified in the 1980s, the government finally began to recognize the need for political change and began to acknowledge the rights of non-white citizens, albeit partially. In the 1990s, Nelson Mandela, who had been imprisoned for 27 years, was released with the support of the public. After his release, he continued to lead the struggle against apartheid, and through a series of negotiations from 1990 to 1991, apartheid was ultimately abolished.

After apartheid was abolished, Nelson Mandela sought to reconcile with whites instead of seeking retaliation. Under the slogan: “We forgive but not forgotten,” he brought peace to South Africa which had been mired in sharp confrontation and conflict. In 1994, the first democratic elections were held in South Africa, and Nelson Mandela was elected as the first black president. Mandela’s leadership and vision helped guide South Africa away from the brink of civil war and toward a more inclusive and democratic society.

Significance of Nelson Mandela International Day

The significance of Nelson Mandela Day lies in its recognition of Mandela’s contribution to the struggle against apartheid, his commitment to reconciliation, human rights, and social justice, and his lifelong dedication to the principles of democracy, equality, and freedom. Mandela played a pivotal role in South Africa’s transition from a racially divided society to a democratic nation. He became an iconic figure of peace and reconciliation not only in his country but also globally.

In December 2015, the United Nations General Assembly [UNGA] decided to extend the scope of Nelson Mandela International Day (July 18), and adopted the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (A/RES/64/13). It was intended to promote humane conditions of imprisonment, raise awareness about prisoners being a part of society, and to value the work of prison staff as a social service of particular importance. As per the recommendation of the expert group, the revised rules were to be known as the “Nelson Mandela Rules” to honor the legacy of Nelson Mandela who spent 27 years in prison in the course of his struggle for global human rights, equality, democracy, and the promotion of a culture of peace.

“A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.” – Nelson Mandela

Theme of Nelson Mandela International Day 2023

Nelson Mandela Day is celebrated annually on July 18 which is his birthday. In 2023, the theme is “The Legacy Lives on Through You: Climate, Food and Solidarity.” This theme is a call to action to take steps to address climate change and food insecurity and to show solidarity with global communities who are affected by these issues.

The theme is inspired by Nelson Mandela’s lifelong commitment to social justice and his belief that we all have a responsibility to make the world a better place. Mandela said, “To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”

On Nelson Mandela Day, people are encouraged to dedicate 67 minutes of their time to helping others as Mandela spent 67 years of his life in public service. This can be done through various activities, such as volunteering, community service, and acts of kindness. The focus is on addressing social issues, promoting equality, and building a better society for all.