Mandela’s ’89: More than just a Birthday

Occasion used to campaign against racism, HIV-AIDS, poverty and formation of council of elders

                                By    Amin George Forji



Former South Africa president, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela is undoubtedly one of the worlds’ most famous living legends. He is equally one of the worlds’ most loved and respected political leaders. No wonder that world celebrities joined South Africans to commemorate his 89th birthday on Wednesday July 18, 2007, like no other in recent memory.  

Some of the high profile personalities at the festivities included former US presidents: Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, former UN Sec. General, Kofi Annan, Bangladeshi 2006 Nobel Peace Price laureate Muhammad Yunus, former Irish President Mary Robinson, FIFA’s vice president Jack Warner, Brazilian soccer legend, Pele, and the three times African footballer of the year and Cameroonian striker, Samuel Eto’o.

The incumbent government of Thabo Mbeki had earlier over the weekend launched a series of week-long festivities in honour of one of the country’s most revered sons.

One of the major spotlights of the birthday festivities was the late night international soccer match dubed “90 Minutes for Mandela”, pitting the worlds’ XI Versus the African XI, which ended in a 3-3 draw, featuring some famous soccer players such as Brazilian Pele, Chilean Ivan Zamorano, Cameroon’s Samuel Eto’o,  Ghana’s Abedi Pele, Egypt’s Hossam Hassan, Holland’s  Ruud Gullit and Spain’s Julen Guerrero.

But Mandela’s ’89 festivities was not just a birthday celebration. It was wisely used it’s organizers as a springboard to kick away several ills and stakes affecting humankind the world-over. These include the spoils of racism and discrimination, the threat of HIV-AIDS pandemic, humanitarian crises, poverty, etc. And there could be no better place to launch such a diverse campaign than in South Africa, whose history embodies all of these.

Prior to the “90 Minutes for Mandela”, soccer players assembled in the morning at the Makana FA’s pitch on Robben Island where Mandela was jailed for 27 years, kicking symbolic 89 goals against racism.

FIFA had earlier also presented the “birthday boy” with two special number 89 jerseys handled over to him by Jack Warner, Pele and Eto’o.

“I am deeply honoured to receive this tribute from Fifa, but it must always be remembered that I was one of many who fought for freedom from tyranny and racism. …It is fitting, therefore, that Fifa will also pay homage to the Makana Football Association on Robben Island,” Mandela said while receiving the present.

“It is a unique occasion for us to be welcomed by a living legend of democracy and anti-discrimination as he celebrates his birthday. The Fifa president is very sorry he could not make it due to other commitments,” Warner, FIFA’s vice president said in reply.

Mandela also used the occasion to launch what he termed the Global Council of Elders, comprised of worlds’ former statesmen, aimed at working out solutions on pertinent world crises such as AIDS, diseases, conflicts and poverty.

Racial discrimination was officially institutionalized in 1948 in South Africa, with the enactment of apartheid laws. Every aspect of social life was touched by the race laws. For instance, some areas of the country were marked as “white only.” Marriage between white and black was expressly prohibited and blacks could not access “white-only” jobs. Most blacks languished in poverty-a big contrast with the white ruling class. In fact, they were required to always carry with them “pass books” that provided information on their rights of access to non-black areas.

Today, the country is one of the most affected countries with HIV-AIDS in the world, with at least two in every five persons said to be living with the illness.

Under apartheid in South Africa, a black person had no right of protest. Apartheid is an Afrikaans word, which means “apart-hood” — living apart. In practice, it meant more than just living apart — it was a system of racial segregation. Your rights and treatment as a citizen depended on whether you were classified racially and “legally” as white or black.

The penalties for violation were extremely severe, irrespective of whether such protest was violent or non-violent. Penalties included life imprisonment, banishment and death. Under the race laws, anyone could be jailed by a low-level police officer without a hearing for up to six months with hard labor. In reality, a police cell was a torture chamber, aimed at deterring protests.

Nelson Mandela is one of those who ventured to out rightly challenge the apartheid rule, with the outcome being that he was confined to twenty-seven years in an isolated prison in Robben Island, making him the world’s longest political prisoner. Upon his release from prison, he was elected as Head of State, with absolute majority, making him both the first ever person to be elected in an open democratic contest in South Africa, and the first democratically elected leader in Africa as a whole. He stood down in 1999, after serving a single term, with an approval rating of 8.2 on 10.

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