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Friday 4 July 2008

Nelson Mandela's 90th birthday

Friday, july 18th next is Nelson Mandela’s 90th birthday.

In UNICEF Ireland, we’re celebrating his birthday by inviting everyone to send him a birthday card. We’re very grateful to the Sunday Times newspaper which next Sunday (6th) will be including a birthday postcard, which you can then use to fill out with a greeting, and post in to us. There are also a number of volunteers and retail outlets around Ireland handing out the postcards. We’re also extremely grateful to An Post, who have very kindly offered to carry the cards free not only in Ireland, but also in bulk when we send them all on to his home in South Africa. Finally, there is an online version of the card which you can also use.

The Nelson Mandela Foundation has been a partner in the “Schools For Africa” campaign with UNICEF and the German philanthropist Peter Kramer, via his Hamburg Society for the Promotion of Democracy and International Law. Schools for Africa is catalyzing basic education across Africa, with an emphasis on girls, orphans and vulnerable children. Schools are being renovated or re-built, educational materials are being provided, and teachers being trained. As I mentioned in a previous posting, I visited a number of schools in Kigali earlier this year: both those which have been receiving UNICEF aid, and those which do not yet have the “child friendly” designation.

I remember when I was a student studying in Dublin in the 1980s, twelve staff at Dunnes Stores supermarkets, led by Vonnie Munroe and Mary Manning and under instructions from their trade union, IDATU, went on strike for two and a half years to protest against the importation of produce from South Africa during the anti-apartheid era. Vonnie could not keep up payments on her home, on her strike pay, and was forced to leave it. On June 18th – just three weeks ago – a plaque was unveiled by the Minister of Foreign Affairs as a permanent feature outside the Dunnes Stores shop on Henry Street in the centre of Dublin, to remember the stand taken by the staff. Mary Manning has met Nelson Mandela, and also has had a street in Johannesburg named after her.

In 1958, the ruling National Party in South Africa, chose Hendrik Verwoerd (note that name…) as its new prime minister. He believed that the solution to the challenges which faced the country at the time was the complete separation of the black and white populations and, further, the division of the black population into ethnic groups or ‘nations’. He unveiled his master plan in 1959, positioning South Africa as a ‘multi-national state’ with separate homelands for eight black ‘nations’. In the same year, the African National Congress, founded back in 1912, suffered a split as the core ANC, including Mandela, pursued a multi-racial holistic South Africa; and the Pan-Africanist Congress demanded a ‘government of the Africans, by the Africans, and for the Africans’. In Sharpeville, a black township fifty miles south of Johannesburg, in March 1960, police opened fire indiscriminately on a crowd of PAC supporters, killing 69 and wounding 186. Using emergency powers, Verwoerd then banned, and cracked down upon, both the PAC and ANC. In July 1962, Mandela was arrested two weeks after having being surreptitiously abroad for six months.

Mandela was found guilty the following November of two charges, of inciting workers to illegally strike, and of leaving the country without valid documentation. He was subsequently charged in October 1963 under the Sabotage Act, which carried the death penalty. He conducted his own defence, and gave a lengthy, impassioned and widely reported speech to mitigate his sentence: he was sentenced to life imprisonment on the 12th June 1964.

In March 1980. the Soweto newspaper The Post started a campaign to demand Mandela’s release, as a symbol of the anti-apartheid movement and in the light of riots and the repression that had followed. Probably millions of people around the world at the time frankly had little idea who exactly Mandela was, but the momentum against apartheid was building, and he became one of the most famous prisoners in the world. While still in Pollsmoor prison (having been moved from Robben Island in 1982), Mandela made several proposals to meet with the then president PW Botha to break the deadlock that had stagnated South Africa, both economically and socially. They eventually held a highly secret meeting in Tuynhuys, Cape Town, which was the president’s official residence: that meeting was 19 years ago tomorrow, the 5th July.

Six weeks later, PW Botha resigned after friction with his cabinet colleagues. His successor, FW de Klerk, under pressure from international governments, but also calculating that the ANC was poorly organized and that he could form a winning alliance with conservative black organizations, lifted the ban on the ANC in February 1990, and released Mandela from prison on the 11th of that month.

In April 1994, during the first national, and fully democratic, elections, the ANC won a national majority and Mandela became president. However a year earlier, the grand-daughter-in-law of the instigator of apartheid Hendrik Verwoerd (remember him from above?..), Melanie Verwoerd, had been invited by Nelson Mandela to stand as a candidate in the first democratic elections in South Africa. Melanie was duly elected as an ANC Member of Parliament. She was the youngest woman member ever to be elected to the South African Parliament.

Melanie today is the Executive Director of UNICEF here in Ireland.

So, in honour of Nelson Mandela’s 90th birthday, and due to Melanie’s initiative in celebrating the event, please fill out and post the birthday postcard, either physically via next Sunday’s Sunday Times, or virtually on the web.

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