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Nelson Mandela: The Symbol of Resistance

Soon after Nelson Mandela and others were charged in the Rivonia trial in October 1963, we secured, as noted elsewhere, a General Assembly resolution calling for the abandonment of the trial and the unconditional release of all political prisoners in South Africa (with only South Africa voting against). For many months, the campaign against the Rivonia Trial was the main preoccupation of the Special Committee against Apartheid and of the anti-apartheid movement, especially in Britain.

On April 21, 1964, Nelson Mandela, accused no1, made his historic statement from the dock. Mary Benson sent me the text of the statement and I arranged to have it published as a document of the Special Committee in its official languages.2 The speech has been reprinted by the United Nations in pamphlets and distributed widely. It was also published by the ANC and other organizations. It had great effect in inspiring people around the world and helping them understand and appreciate the struggle for freedom in South Africa. The last paragraph of that statement has been quoted numerous times.

“During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

We were relieved when there were no death sentences in the Rivonia trial but the campaign for the release of political prisoners had to be continued as there was ever increasing repression with numerous arrests, torture, death sentences and executions. The Special Committee`s reports contained a detailed record of repression during the period. Resolutions in the General Assembly for the release of prisoners received virtually unanimous votes and resolutions were also adopted by the Security Council and other bodies.

In June 1973, Alfred Nzo, Secretary-General of the ANC, told me that the ANC would appreciate an observance of the tenth anniversary of the arrests at Rivonia. I felt that the anniversary of arrests was not appropriate for a celebration, and that July would not be a good time for an effective observance. Instead, I proposed the observance of the tenth anniversary of the General Assembly resolution (11 October) as a Day of Solidarity with the South African Political Prisoners. (That included Nelson Mandela who was not arrested at Rivonia.) The Special Committee approved the suggestion and sent an appeal to governments and organizations. The Day was observed very widely. Many governments issued statements or sent messages. The Rivonia trial and Nelson Mandela received special attention at the observances. Although we had in mind only the observance of the tenth anniversary, there were spontaneous observances in 1974 as well. The Special Committee then decided on an annual observance and secured the proclamation of the Day by the General Assembly.3

In 1977, the Special Committee sent a small mission to Accra – composed of its officers and representatives of ANC and PAC – to congratulate Ghana on the tenth anniversary of its independence and pay tribute to its support for the struggle for freedom in South Africa. Mac Maharaj of the ANC and I shared a room in “Job 66,” built for housing African Presidents at a summit of the Organization of African Unity. Rather late at night, as I was trying to sleep, Mac said, “E.S., we must promote the observance of the 60th birthday of Nelson next year.” I was too tired and sleepy and did not pay attention to his suggestion until I returned to New York. It then took me months to confirm the exact date of Mandela`s birth. I wrote to several people, including the ANC and Winnie Mandela, but got no replies. I was warned by one of his friends that he cheats about his birthday!

In March 1978, I received a telegram from the ANC Headquarters in Lusaka that he was born on July 18, 1918. I immediately wrote personal letters to many friends in the anti-apartheid movements and governments, and spoke to ambassadors of several friendly countries, suggesting observance of the birthday.4

Oliver Tambo happened to come to New York in April and I sent him a note telling him what I was doing and suggesting that ANC should support my initiative, as it is not proper for me to act without ANC support. I was surprised that he did not call.

A few days later I happened to go to London. I met Oliver in the ANC office and personally asked him about the initiative. He said that some people in the ANC wanted to observe his birthday as President of the ANC. He was a year older than Mandela and was senior to Mandela in the ANC hierarchy. But he had discouraged any observance.

As for Mandela`s birthday, he told me it is best if the initiative came from outside. It should not be ANC honouring one of its leaders. He encouraged me to go ahead.

The response to my efforts, and those of the anti-apartheid movements, was far beyond any one`s expectations.
More than ten thousand letters and telegrams were sent by governments, organizations and individuals to Nelson Mandela on Robben Island prison or to Winnie Mandela, then confined to Brandfort.

Meetings were held in many capitals, including one in the Grand Committee Room of the House of Commons in London under the sponsorship of the UN Special Committee, the Anti-Apartheid Movement and the International Defence and Aid Fund for Southern Africa. It was addressed by Leslie Harriman, Chairman of the Special Committee, Canon L. John Collins and Ms. Mary Benson.

Prime Minister James Callaghan of the United Kingdom paid tribute to Mandela on the floor of the House of Commons and sent good wishes to him on behalf of the government. Several members of Parliament and Cabinet Ministers also sent personal greetings.

Reference was made to the event in the United States Congress by Congressman John Conyers. The National Assembly of Lesotho adopted a resolution calling for the release of political prisoners and an end to apartheid.

Posters, greeting cards, badges etc., were produced in many countries and a photographic exhibit – “The Struggle is My Life” – by IDAF was shown widely. Millions of people saw a 60-minute television spot supplied by the United Nations to television stations.

Since then, United Nations resolutions began to call for the release of “Nelson Mandela and all other political prisoners.”

Encouraged by the observance of Mandela`s birthday, I thought of organizing the observance of the birthdays of other leaders in prison, and spoke to Oliver Tambo. He told me that the ANC would like to focus on Mandela as the symbol of the resistance. As a result, we did not call for honours or observances in the case of other leaders.5 Oliver Tambo discouraged and stopped any honours to him.

In October 1978, I met the Foreign Minister of India, Atul Behari Vajpayee at a dinner in New York and introduced Johnny Makatini, the ANC representative, to him. We suggested that India should honour Mandela, perhaps by naming a street in Delhi after him. Mr. Vajpayee was responsive, but it was not the practice in India to name streets after living persons. Soon after, an advisory committee set up by the Indian Government for the International Anti-Apartheid Year (1978-79) suggested that Mandela be bestowed the Nehru Award for International Understanding; the Government approved.6

This was the first major international award received by Mandela.7 It set in motion a series of honours and awards to him all over the world. The Anti-Apartheid Movement in Britain was most active in promoting such honours. The press began to speak of a “Mandela fever” which gripped Britain. I was in frequent consultation with Mike Terry, Executive Secretary of AAM, and several initiatives we took in the United Nations resulted from our consultations.

I arranged for a resolution by the UN General Assembly expressing appreciation to governments, cities, organizations and institutions which had honoured leaders of the struggle as part of the campaign for the release of political prisoners.8 That helped spread the “Mandela fever” to other countries.

Meanwhile, after the independence of Zimbabwe in 1980, the World, edited by Percy Qoboza, initiated a petition in South Africa for the release of Mandela and negotiations with him. It was endorsed by Bishop Tutu and eventually received some 80,000 signatures despite repression and harassment.

The Chairman of the Special Committee, B.A. Clark of Nigeria, strongly supported the initiative of Mr. Qoboza, and the Special Committee promoted international support for the campaign. On 13 June 1980, the UN Security Council adopted a resolution in which it urgently called upon “the South African regime to release all political prisoners, including Nelson Mandela and all other Black leaders with whom it must deal in any meaningful discussions of the future of the country.”9

The Summit Conferences of the Organization of African Unity and the Commonwealth called unanimously for the release of Nelson Mandela, as did the European Parliament. Many governments and national Parliaments and numerous organizations took action.

For the special meeting on the Day of Solidarity on October 11, 1980, the Special Committee invited the Right Honourable Michael Kelly, Lord Provost of Glasgow which had given the Freedom of the City to Mandela. Mike Terry suggested to me that morning a declaration by mayors for the release of Mandela, to be initiated by Mr. Kelly with the support of the Special Committee. I spoke to the Lord Provost and to the Chairman of the Special Committee, Alhaji Yusuff Maitama-Sule of Nigeria, and they agreed. The United Nations Information Centres around the world helped contact mayors. The declaration was signed by 2,264 Mayors from 56 countries by 30 September 1982.

On the twentieth anniversary of the arrest of Mandela (August 4, 1982), the President of the British Anti-Apartheid Movement, Archbishop Trevor Huddleston, and the Chairman of the Special Committee initiated a declaration for the release of Mandela. It was signed by tens of thousands of persons from more than seventy countries, including numerous Members of Parliament and other public leaders. The UN Secretary-General also received many other petitions and declarations from various organizations around the world.

In 1983, an Art contre/against Apartheid exhibit with works by the most prominent contemporary artists was opened in Paris. It was organized by a committee of artists with the financial and other support by the United Nations Special Committee and the Centre against Apartheid. A Cultural Foundation against Apartheid was established as a trustee of the exhibit: Nelson Mandela was designated as an honorary trustee. The exhibit travelled to several cities and received much attention in the media.

I retired from the Centre against Apartheid at the end of 1984. By then the campaign for the release of Mandela as the symbol of South African resistance became an important component of the struggle against apartheid. The Anti-Apartheid Movement in Britain and allied groups in Nordic and other countries developed the campaign to new levels. Rock singers joined the campaign and spread the message to millions of people. The climax was a concert on Mandela`s 70th birthday in 1988 at Wimbledon with many prominent singers. It was perhaps unprecedented in its reach of hundreds of millions of people around the world.

I was on a visit to India around that time. An Indian graphic artist, Surinder Singh Sambyal, showed me his poster for the 70th birthday of Mandela. I sent it to London and it was used by the Anti-Apartheid Movement in its rallies. Sechaba, the ANC organ, published it on its cover page in July 1988.

Mosie Moolla, the ANC representative in New Delhi, and I approached Anand Sharma to organize the observance of the Mandela birthday in India. He was most resourceful. The observance in India was impressive, next only to that in London in its impact.

Mandela, the “prince among political prisoners” as we called him, became a household name all over the world.


1: Please see also my article on the Free Nelson Mandela campaign at:
2: UN document A/AC.115/L.67 of 6 May 1964. The speech was slightly condensed.
3: General Assembly resolution 31/6c of 9 November 1976
4: I did not take up the matter in the Special Committee at that stage as both the ANC and the PAC were invited as observers. I was concerned that the PAC representative might try to create complications. The Chairman of the Special Committee, Leslie O. Harriman of Nigeria, was fully in favour of my initiative.
5: The University of Amsterdam awarded an honorary doctorate to Govan Mbeki in 1978 and, in the same year, the City of Amsterdam named a square after Steve Biko. Walter Sisulu was given a doctorate by the Institute of African Studies in Moscow. The Anti-Apartheid Movement, in cooperation with the UN Centre against Apartheid, published his biography on his 70th birthday in 1982.
6: Prof. Fatima Meer told me that she wrote to Mrs. India Gandhi, then leader of the Opposition, suggesting an honour to Mandela and that Mrs. Gandhi said she would do what she could. By the time the award was presented, Indira Gandhi was back in power as the Prime Minister.
7: There were a few honours to Mandela earlier, by student unions in Britain.
8: Resolution 36/172-J of 17 December 1981.
9: Resolution 473 of June 13, 1980. The resolution was drafted by Mr. Clark.

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