Memorial services were held worldwide for Nelson Mandela, former President of South Africa, on 10 December. The service in South Africa was a major event with over 100 countries represented. The US fielded a big delegation led by President Obama and three former presidents. I have the honor to be among the guests at the service in Bangkok hosted by the South African Embassy and UN ESCAP.
I have long been an admirer of Mandela and more so after I read his autobiography: Long Walk to Freedom two decades ago. But it was only after his death that I fully appreciate the impact of his legacy – not only to South Africa but also to the world, and not only to my generation who saw apartheid at work but also to future generations. The memorial service I attended was both touching with many of us in tears, but it was also joyful because it was a celebration of a life well led.
Mandela’s story is quite simple at one level. He rebelled against an unjust system where a person’s rights were determined solely by the color of his skin. Mandela went to prison for 27 years, was released, ran for and won the election to become the first black president of South Africa. But this simple story is not the whole story and does not remotely do justice to the man who made the following speech from the dock, having been charged with sabotage.
“During my lifetime, I have dedicated myself to the 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 opportunity. It is an ideal, which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if need be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
He did achieve his ideal with the disbanding of apartheid and the introduction of democracy for all the peoples in South Africa. He did it without a nationwide strife that was expected, and with such generosity and grace to the people who jailed him. The success of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is well known and the model has been used in other countries, also with good results.
Inspirational quote for WTO
My favorite story about Mandela happened in another context, which has connection with aspects of my work. On 7 December, two days after Mandela’s death, the World Trade Organization (WTO) reached agreement on a multilateral deal centering mainly on trade facilitation, which is part of the Doha development Round. This may sound like a mundane deal but it was really quite extraordinary.
WTO has been negotiating the Doha Round for the past 12 years – unsuccessfully due to the diverse interests of its 159 member countries and the complex rules for negotiation. So agreement was considered quite impossible. Negotiations were indeed difficult but there was a positive outcome. When agreement was reached, the lead participants were teary and quoted Mandela: “It also seems impossible, until it is done”.
This quote will be Mandela’s legacy to me.