As the elderly gentleman walked onto the stage, slowly, unassuming, and assisted by a person on either side, the over 20,000 people present in the hall rose to their feet. The resounding applause continued for around 10 minutes… not wanting to fall short of the stature of the honoured guest — Mr. Nelson Mandela. The occasion was the closing ceremony of the International AIDS Conference in Bangkok, in 2004. It was also his 86th birthday.
The applause was much longer than the emphatic speech he made. Said Mr Mandela, ‘The best birthday present I could receive is a renewed commitment by leaders from all sectors of society to take urgent action against HIV and AIDS.’
I was fortunate to be there at this momentous occasion — to feel the impact of his presence, to see the respect he commanded, to listen to him and to be inspired.
How can one person influence so many? I found my answer in the words of Mr. Mandela himself, “What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead.” He made a difference not only to the lives of his generation but for generations to come. His struggle against apartheid, and the victory achieved after much personal endurance went beyond the fight against racial discrimination. It symbolized the struggle against oppression, against personal freedom and against the violation of rights.
He also taught us the right approach to fight discrimination. He wrote after his release from prison, “I knew that people expected me to harbour anger towards whites, but I had none. In prison my anger towards whites decreased but my hatred for the system grew.”
Words are never enough to describe the loss of a person such as Mr. Mandela.
He is revered across generations. When school children in India are asked to do a project or a presentation on a famous personality, they choose Nelson Mandela as much as Mahatma Gandhi. I have the pleasure of sharing a fantastic sketch by Uday Sahai, a 10-year-old school boy in New Delhi. The sketch captures just how much Mr Mandela belongs to all nations, not just to South Africa. When I shared this sketch with my former director, who is from South Africa, she was touched and said, “It is a most beautiful image of our beloved Madiba.”
May God bless your soul, Madiba. You will live on in our hearts!