Nelson Mandela Day is celebrated every year on July 18, Nelson Mandela’s birthday. Today, July 24, there was celebration of the day which included the awarding of the inaugural Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela Prize. The prize was awarded to two laureates who have each embodied the values of Mandela in their life and work.
The first recipient was Dr. Helena Ndume, an inspirational woman from Namibia. Ndume was forced to flee to Angola as a 15 year-old due to violence in Namibia. Though forced from her home she did not abandon her education and was able to continue studying in Zambia. When she was young she had wanted to be a fashion designer. She was however, talked out of this by a mentor who told her that independent Namibia wouldn’t need fashion designers. She heeded the advice of her mentor and instead went to Germany to study medicine. She now works as an ophthalmologist having dedicated her life to the treatment of blindness. Through her work she has been credited with helping 30,000 people get no-cost eye surgery that address blindness, cataracts, and myopia. She talked today at the celebration about the fact that 1 million people go blind every year and that most cases of blindness could be either prevented or cured with access to vision care. She then ended her statement by urging the member states to recommit to the goal to end preventable blindness by 2020.
The second recipient was H.E. Mr. Jorge Fernando Branco Sampaio, former President of the Republic of Portugal. Sampaio worked tirelessly for the restoration of democracy in Portugal, taking many cases to the courts of the dictatorship included several that he defended pro-bono. He went on to work his way through the political leadership holding several ministerial level positions before serving as President from 1996-2006. He then served as the UN Secretary-General’s first Special Envoy to Stop Tuberculosis from 2006-2012. Sampaio spent the majority of his statement at today’s celebration not talking about himself but talking instead about the work still to be done. He started his statement acknowledging and paying tribute to the millions of people who have persevered towards the ideals that Nelson Mandela held without recognition, especially noting the many health care workers who have devoted their lives to providing health services to those who would not otherwise have access to basic medical care from impoverished urban areas to refugee camps. He continued by saying that unfortunately we as an international community and our governments in many ways have truly failed those who most needed our help but that it does not have to be this way. He concluded his statement with a quote from Nelson Mandela, “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
The celebration continued with speakers congratulating the two Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela Prize recipients and reflecting on Nelson Mandela, his life, and his impact on the world. The speakers included; the Prime Minister of Uganda, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Senegal (Speaking on behalf of African states), Bangladesh (Speaking on behalf of Asian states), Romania (Speaking on behalf ofEastern European states), Paraguay (Speaking on behalf of Latin American and Caribbean states), Spain (Speaking on behalf of Western European states and others), United States, and South Africa. There was a generally reflective mood throughout the celebration with an unspoken question seeming to float through the room. What would Nelson Mandela do?