As former South African President Nelson Mandela valiantly battles for his life, I remember a very touching personal encounter with him with great nostalgia. By way of background, Mandela is, of course, an iconic elder statesman of our times, a great anti-apartheid hero of South Africa, a man who was jailed for 27 years, but came out as a peace-maker and liberator of his country.
He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993, and became President of South Africa during 1994-1999. He did not seek re-election although he was hugely popular and sure to win again. He devoted much of his post-retirement life to global peace-making and other progressive causes.
Among the progressive causes Mandela embraced with deep commitment, promoting the well-being of children was very close to his heart. One of his early actions as President of South Africa, was to establish the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund as his charitable legacy for future generations. His long-time friend and companion, and later his third wife, Graca Machel, was also equally committed to the cause of children globally.
Given this background, it was natural for us at the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) to reach out to Mandela and seek his support for our ambitious plans to promote the survival, development and protection of the world’s children. UNICEF’s former Executive Director, James Grant, made early contacts with Mandela and secured his personal support for our work on behalf of children in Africa and the world. We pursued this collaboration even after Grant’s death, and Mandela’s retirement as President.
As Director of Planning and Program at UNICEF Headquarters in the early 1990s, I had a major responsibility for ensuring the follow-up of the ambitious goals of the historic 1990 World Summit for Children, many of which later became the Millennium Development Goals. Given South Africa’s leadership role in Africa and globally, I took a personal interest in how it developed its national program of action (NPA) for children.
South Africa’s first NPA for children was launched by President Mandela in May 1996. I led the UNICEF delegation at the launch at Mandela’s presidential palace in Pretoria, and had my first opportunity to personally meet and interact with Mandela.
Among the many world leaders I had the honor to meet when I served at the United Nations, meeting Nelson Mandela was undoubtedly the most memorable and uplifting experience. What I found most touching was the lack of any pomp and excessive protocol in meeting him.
One thing very common during meetings with most national leaders, particularly in developing countries, is the very tight security around such leaders. Visitors are often subjected to several layers of security checks, and leaders are always encircled by armed body guards. But I hardly saw any security guards surrounding Mandela. Both in the conference hall and in the open palace garden, the President mingled freely and chatted informally with all visitors, including senior officials, diplomats and a large number of children and young people who were there for the special occasion.
Everybody seemed to address Mandela with his affectionate nick-name “Madiba”—and none with the pretentious “Your Excellency”, “Right Honorable” or even “Mr President”.
I find it repulsive to see armed guards in military uniform hovering over our civilian ministers, Prime Minister and President in public functions, as if the country is under martial law and our leaders are so unpopular and insecure that they need to be constantly protected from their own people.
It was a pleasant contrast to see Mandela visibly unguarded, a sign of a popular leader with supreme self-confidence as well as deep humility. I assume there probably were some security personnel in civilian clothes guarding him discreetly, but it was refreshing to note that genuinely popular civilian leaders do not need to be protected from their own people by over-bearing security detail.
South Africa’s NPA for children contained many ambitious goals derived from the commitments of the World Summit for Children, and it followed a rights-based approach in the spirit of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Initially, South Africa made good progress in many child development and welfare programs, although the rapid rise of HIV/AIDS and the wrong-headed policies by Mandela’s successor Thabo Mbeki led to some of the gains being reversed.
UNICEF continued to benefit from Mandela’s leadership and support even after he relinquished the Presidency of South Africa. Mandela continued to be an enlightened leader in the fight against HIV/AIDS in Africa. He was also very active in conflict resolution in different countries of Africa, so vital for protecting children from not just the ravages of war, but also from resources being siphoned off from delivery of basic services to increased expenditures on arms and armed forces.
To protect children from the impact of armed conflicts, Mandela’s Mozambican wife, Graca Machel, became a very influential ally for UNICEF. In 1994, UN Secretary-General Butros Ghali appointed her to lead a comprehensive study on the impact of armed conflict on children. UNICEF provided the Machel study with essential secretariat and substantive support. I got to know and brief Graca in this context, and later when we served as fellow members of the Board of the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI) I was deeply impressed with her passion and commitment for the well-being of children.
The Graca Machel study entitled The Impact of Armed Conflict on Children argued with great empathy and evidence how millions of children were killed, seriously injured or permanently disabled in armed conflict, and how many gullible children were recruited as child-soldiers. It recommended bold measures to protect children from modern warfare and violent conflicts. These recommendations were approved by the General Assembly and the Security Council of the United Nations.
UNICEF adopted a new policy on protection of children in armed conflict, which became a standard feature of all country programs in conflict and post-conflict situations, including Nepal. As UNICEF’s Deputy Executive Director, and Assistant Secretary-General of the UN, I oversaw the preparation of program guidance and monitoring reports on children and armed conflict, and testified before the Security Council when it discussed field reports, sometimes naming and shaming governments and guerilla groups who used child soldiers.
It is worth recalling that Nepal’s Maoist rebels were on the UN Security Council’s watch list for using child soldiers. Though the Maoists formally denied that they ever used child soldiers, verification by the UN Mission to Nepal (UNMIN) showed that they employed over 3,000 under-age combatants in their “People’s Liberation Army”.
I was sad that the discharge of these child soldiers was much delayed, and in the end, hastily completed, with a very unsatisfactory package deal. Had the Maoists negotiated in good faith, honoring the spirit of the Machel report, and with the best interest of these “disqualified ex-combatants”, the UN system and many donors were willing to support a generous package of education, training and employment that would have helped transform their lives and contributed meaningfully to Nepal’s development.
As we debate the future structure of the Nepali state, we Nepalis would do well to remember how Mandela opposed the apartheid-era proposals for creating ethnicity-based Bantustans, preferring instead multi-ethnic, multi-cultural “rainbow” federation of a prosperous South Africa. And instead of creating a flawed Truth and Reconciliation Commission that does not meet international standards, and is tacitly aimed at granting blanket amnesty, we should emulate Mandela’s model of South Africa’s TRC.
Nelson Mandela worked closely with UNICEF in the lead up to the 2002 UN General Assembly Special Session on Children (SSC). To generate strong worldwide public opinion for an ambitious plan of action for children, Mandela agreed to be the principal “patron” of a Global Movement for Children. He was the first among scores of world leaders to pledge support for a campaign called “Say Yes to Children”, which secured the supporting pledge of some 94 million people around the world.
Mandela was the keynote speaker, along with Bill Gates and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, at the SSC attended by over 70 world leaders and hundreds of child rights activists. He gave a scintillating speech calling for global commitment to build “A World Fit for Children”.
Nelson Mandela will be remembered for his extra-ordinary life of courageous struggle and sacrifice for human equality, social justice and peace in the world. I remember him fondly for his enlightened leadership for the well-being of the world’s children.
This story appeared in The Republica on 29-June-2013