FEATURE: UN Staff fondly remember 'Madiba'

UN Women Executive Director, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka sitting with Nelson Mandela. Photo: UN Women/Noah Selowe

6 December 2013 – The late Nelson Mandela embodied many of the ideals of the United Nations, so it is no wonder that the life and work of the former South African President and champion of peace are an enduring source of inspiration for many of the world body's staff, beginning with the Secretary-General himself.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon, who met Mr. Mandela in 2009, has recalled: “When I thanked him for his lifelong work and contribution to ending apartheid and to peace and stability and humanity, he refused to take the compliment.”

Instead, Mr. Mandela stressed that there were many hundreds of heroes, so many people – some known, some unknown – who had helped him, and who deserved just as much praise and perhaps even more. “I was moved, deeply moved, and he still gives me inspiration as I work as Secretary-General of United Nations,” said Mr. Ban.

Some UN staff members had long-running relationships with Mr. Mandela, or "Madiba", as he was affectionately known. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director of UN Women, said she felt the pain of Madiba's passing as she shared with the UN News Centre a conversation the two had when they began working together on the executive government.

She said she told Mr. Mandela “I have a lot to learn.” His response was: “I also wasn't trained to be a president, but remember, I'd been a prisoner for a long time.” Recalling his “amazing way to make you feel strong,” Ms. Mlambo-Ngcuka she said that she knew then, “I just had to rise to the occasion.”

“I feel I owe… many of my blessings to his leadership,” Ms. Mlambo-Ngcuka said, adding she would always be grateful that “Madiba took a chance on me.”

“People were actually wishing he would live forever, myself included,” she said.

“Nelson Mandela inspired countless people around the world,” Ms. Mlambo-Ngcuka said in separate statement. “For us all, Madiba means freedom.”

Mr. Mandela's former chief legal advisor, Nicholas Haysom, now the Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General at the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), said, “I was struck by the grace, charm and gratitude he displayed to even the most humble workers around him,” Mr. Haysom said. “Whether a commoner or a queen,” he treated everyone equally.

Mr. Haysom, observed that people, particularly in conflict countries where he has worked, sometime complained bitterly that their own nation “lacks a Madiba – a person who is big enough to unite their country and put it on course.”

Commenting on Mr. Mandela's death, Mr. Haysom, a South African, said he felt “both relief, because he had been ill for so long, but still unmistakeably a sense of loss,” adding that he was “always conscious of both my country's debt and the debt of everyone everywhere towards this man both for his dedicated commitment to his principles, as well as his capacity to bring people together.”

UN Radio Producer Derrick Mbatha is from South Africa and from1977 to 1979 worked for Radio Freedom of the African National Congress (ANC) in Angola. In September 1979 he joined UN Radio in New York as part of the team producing programmes that covered the Organization's activities against apartheid.

“I felt a strong connection to Mr. Mandela through the struggle we shared to rid South Africa of apartheid,” said Mr. Mbatha.

The United Nations became a partner in the struggle against apartheid in 1950, when the General Assembly declared that "a policy of 'racial segregation' (apartheid) is necessarily based on doctrines of racial discrimination".

Ten years later, on 1 April 1960, the Security Council – in its first action on South Africa – adopted a resolution deploring the policies and actions of the South African Government in the wake of the killing of 69 peaceful African protesters in Sharpeville by the police on 21 March. The Council called on the Government to abandon its policies of apartheid and racial discrimination.

The Organization remained engaged on the issue, including when, on 30 July 1992, with the violence escalating and political negotiations faltering, then-Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali announced that he would send, in response to a request from Mr. Mandela himself, a small group of UN monitors to the country. The United Nations Observer Mission in South Africa was established by the Security Council on 17 August 1992.

South Africa's first democratically elected Government, headed by Nelson Mandela, took office in May 1994, and two months later, the General Assembly approved the credentials of the South African delegation and removed the item of apartheid from its agenda. The Security Council removed the question of South Africa from its agenda on 27 June.

Mr. Mandela addressed the Assembly as leader of the country on 3 October 1994.

Recalling how moving it was to hear Madiba speak at the General Assembly, Mr. Mbatha said:“Mandela was everybody's hero.”


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