Enduring legacy of Nelson Mandela can guide efforts to end racism, UN says on International Day

A classroom scene at the school run by the Hawa Abdi Centre. Credit: UN Photo/Tobin Jones

21 March 2014 – To mark the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, the United Nations is calling on the world, especially political, civil and religious leaders, to draw strength from the legacy of the late Nelson Mandela, who waged a lifelong battle against prejudice and messages and ideas based on racism, racial superiority or hatred.

Noting that this was the first year the International Day was being commemorated without Mr. Mandela, who passed away in early December 2013, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said this sad reality is also a reminder of “Madiba’s” courageous struggle against apartheid and his inspiring victory over the racist forces that had imprisoned him for 27 years.

The UN General Assembly, in a show of solidarity with the anti-apartheid movement, established this Day to commemorate the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre, when 69 people were killed and many others injured as police opened fire on a peaceful protest against South Africa’s appalling pass laws.

“Nelson Mandela’s journey from prisoner to President was the triumph of an extraordinary individual against the forces of hate, ignorance and fear — and it was a testimony to the power of courage, reconciliation and forgiveness to overcome the injustice of racial discrimination,” said the UN chief in his message on the Day.

Today, we remember Sharpeville as a symbol of the terrible toll of racial discrimination, and we honour those who lost their lives during the massacre. “At the same time, we recall that President Mandela framed Sharpeville’s legacy as an unwavering resolve to protect the dignity and rights of all people,” said the Secretary-General.

With that in mind, Mr. Ban called on all people, especially political, civic and religious leaders, to strongly condemn messages and ideas based on racism, racial superiority or hatred as well as those that incite racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.

“On this Day, let us acknowledge that racial discrimination remains a dangerous threat and resolve to tackle it through dialogue inspired by the proven ability of individuals to respect, protect and defend our rich diversity as one human family,” he declared.

In a strong rebuke of racism and racist attitudes, Irina Bokova, Director-General of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), said: “Bigotry impoverishes the world, seeking to divide humanity against itself and undermine the inexhaustible strength that lies in our diversity. Equality and justice must guide us, no matter the circumstances.”

At this time of deep social transformation and global change, Ms. Bokova, like the Secretary-General, urged the world to draw strength from Mr. Mandela’s experience and his determination to bridge divides despite all challenges.

“On this Day, we must recall that respect of others is essential to respect for ourselves and our own communities and that humanity is a single family, brought together by shared aspirations and a common destiny,” she said in her message, adding that lasting peace can only be built on the equality and dignity of every woman and man – regardless of ethnic, religious, gender, socio-economic or other background.

“Respect and tolerance are liberating acts, whereby the differences of others are recognized as the same as our own and whereby the riches of another culture are taken as the wealth of all,” said Ms. Bokova, insisting that such values must be taught, because education remains the most powerful way to prevent racism and uproot discrimination.

“This is why UNESCO is advancing human rights education across the world, and developing new forms of education for global citizenship.”


News Tracker: past stories on this issue

World Day for Social Justice: UN urges action to end poverty, overcome inequality

Related Stories





UN Observances 21 - 24 March

More videos »


In-depth Interviews